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Obesity Affecting Education

Dietitian Juliette Kellow comments on new research from the International Journal of Obesity which reveals being overweight may impact on a child's education and ability to learn.

Obesity Affecting Education

By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

New research published in the International Journal of Obesity reveals that being overweight doesn’t just affect a child’s health. It can also have an impact on their education and ability to learn.

Researchers monitored the weights of around 7,000 American school children from when they first entered kindergarten (around age 5) through to the end of third grade (around age 8). They also assessed how well each child did at school by measuring their mathematic and reading ability and social skills, and recording any behavioural problems and absences from school.

The prevalence of obesity increased from 9% at the start of kindergarten to 17% at the end of the third grade, indicating that almost twice as many children were overweight by the age of 8 compared with those at the age of 5.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that girls who started school at a normal weight but were overweight by the end of the third grade performed less well in reading and maths and had lower ratings for social skills. Meanwhile, boys who became overweight had more absences from schools. There was little difference though, in those children who started their school years overweight and remained this way.

The authors believe that becoming overweight during the first four years in school is a significant risk factor for poor school outcomes amongst girls. As a result, they suggest children who become overweight during the early school years may need to be carefully monitored.

WLR says:

The problem of obesity in children is rarely out of the news at the moment, following recent reports that one in five children will be obese by 2010. However, most of the concerns so far have been related to children’s short and long-term physical and psychological health. Little focus has been given to the academic performance in overweight children.

This study, which is one of the first of its kind, is therefore, really interesting. It’s not clear why overweight children may perform less well at school and more research needs to be carried out in this area.

There may be a link between self-esteem and learning. Being overweight may lower children’s self esteem, making it harder for them to concentrate in class so that they learn less. Possible health problems with obese children may affect attendance at school which in turn, will affect school performance.

Another interesting finding from this study is that weight gain seems to be a real problem once children start school. This is probably due to a combination of changes in eating habits and less activity during the school day. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that school meals and packed lunches are balanced and healthy – and that children are encouraged to be more active outside of school hours.

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