Children who are teased for being fat are likely to end up even fatter, according to scientists.
Overweight children bullied about their weight put on an average of seven ounces (200g) more body weight every year than children not bullied, a study found.
This may be because they eat more to cope with emotional pain, avoid exercise out of embarrassment or gain weight because of a hormone imbalance.
Almost one in three of children in the UK are overweight to some extent and many face a future marred by diabetes and heart disease.
Researchers said the public should be made more aware that fat-shaming doesn’t work and may actually make young people’s health worse.
Children bullied about their weight are likely to gain more weight than people of the same age who don’t have to deal with teasing (stock image)
Scientists at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland, US, surveyed 110 children and tracked their weight for up to 15 years.
They were 11 years old on average at the beginning of the study and were either overweight already or had two overweight parents.
Almost half (43 per cent) said they had been teased about their weight at least once, even if they weren’t already fat themselves.
This may have come in the form of cyber-bullying on social media, being excluded from social groups in real life, or having rumours spread about them – children even report being teased by their own parents.
Scientists measured how much people’s Body Mass Index (BMI) – a measure of height to weight ratio – changed over time. A healthy range is between 18 and 24.
People who experienced the worst teasing saw their BMI rise by 0.76 points per year, while this was just 0.57 points for those who weren’t teased.
This showed young people bullied for their weight put on approximately a third more weight (33 per cent) than those not bullied.
DOCTORS ‘SHOULD USE NEUTRAL WORDS TO AVOID STIGMA’
The American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines in 2017 suggesting doctors and health experts use less stigmatising words to avoid upsetting overweight people.
It said discussing weight in a way which made it sound bad could lead to people binge eating, create feelings of isolation, and even turn parents off seeking help.
Words such as ‘fat,’ ‘obese,’ and ‘extremely obese’ were perceived as the most undesirable, blaming, stigmatising, and least motivating, the AAP said.
Whereas more neutral terms, such as ‘weight’ or ‘unhealthy weight’ were deemed the most motivating for weight loss and the most desirable.
Blame coming from medical professionals could directly discourage some parents from seeking medical help.
Thirty-four per cent of parents said they would switch doctors if one of them referred to their children’s weight in a negative way, and 24 per cent said they would avoid future medical appointments for their children.
‘Weight stigma is often propagated and tolerated in society because of beliefs that stigma and shame will motivate people to lose weight,’ the policy authors Stephen Pont and Rebecca Puhl wrote at the time.
‘However, rather than motivating positive change, this stigma contributes to behaviors such as binge eating, social isolation, avoidance of health care services, decreased physical activity, and increased weight gain, which worsen obesity and create additional barriers to healthy behavior change.’
Over the course of the 15-year study, the extra seven ounces per year researchers noticed could add up to 6.5lbs (3kg) extra weight.
‘There are several possible mechanisms, both psychological and physiological, that might account for the findings,’ the researchers, led by Dr Jack Yanovski, wrote.
‘The associations of weight stigma with unhealthy weight control behaviours, binge eating, body dissatisfaction, and avoidance of physical activity are well-documented, all of which might collectively place an individual at increased risk for excess weight and [obesity] gain.’
A spokesperson for the National Obesity Forum in the UK, Tam Fry, said more should be done to protect children from bullying.
‘Children being bullied or teased about their weight is the same the world over,’ he told MailOnline.
‘Classmates can cruelly victimise anyone who is “different” and the fat still stand out in the playground. I’m afraid that it may ever be so.
‘A logical consequence is that the bullied comfort eat and thus get fatter. In time, because so many children are getting fatter, this kind of bullying could fade away.
‘But even now schools should educate their pupils not to bully and stamp it out when they see it.’
The scientists added that the stress of being bullied could cause levels of the stress hormone cortisol to rise.
Previous research in adults has linked high levels of cortisol to weight gain because it can stimulate the appetite, stop people feeling full and lead to less self-control and cravings for fatty foods.
It was not clear whether teasing coming from children’s peers or their parents had a worse effect.
‘Continued efforts should be made to educate the public about the potentially harmful effects of weight-based teasing,’ the researchers said.
‘This may be especially important within families and schools given that many children with overweight report WBT from parents, siblings, and classmates, and social exclusion may be common among youth with high weight.’
They added youth is a time of ‘increased vulnerability’ and more should be done to help those bullied for their weight.
The research was published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.
WHAT IS OBESITY? AND WHAT ARE ITS HEALTH RISKS?
Obesity is defined as an adult having a BMI of 30 or over.
A healthy person’s BMI – calculated by dividing weight in kg by height in metres, and the answer by the height again – is between 18.5 and 24.9.
Among children, obesity is defined as being in the 95th percentile.
Percentiles compare youngsters to others their same age.
For example, if a three-month-old is in the 40th percentile for weight, that means that 40 per cent of three-month-olds weigh the same or less than that baby.
Around 58 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men in the UK are overweight or obese.
The condition costs the NHS around £6.1billion, out of its approximate £124.7 billion budget, every year.
This is due to obesity increasing a person’s risk of a number of life-threatening conditions.
Such conditions include type 2 diabetes, which can cause kidney disease, blindness and even limb amputations.
Research suggests that at least one in six hospital beds in the UK are taken up by a diabetes patient.
Obesity also raises the risk of heart disease, which kills 315,000 people every year in the UK – making it the number one cause of death.
Carrying dangerous amounts of weight has also been linked to 12 different cancers.
This includes breast, which affects one in eight women at some point in their lives.
Among children, research suggests that 70 per cent of obese youngsters have high blood pressure or raised cholesterol, which puts them at risk of heart disease.
Obese children are also significantly more likely to become obese adults.
And if children are overweight, their obesity in adulthood is often more severe.
As many as one in five children start school in the UK being overweight or obese, which rises to one in three by the time they turn 10.