Study: Adolescents’ Grades, Well-Being Suffer Along With Body Image

Teens who consider themselves overweight may have a greater risk for depression and school-related stress.

A new study of nearly 7,000 Chinese adolescents found that boys and girls who felt they were fat were more likely to report being overwhelmed by schoolwork and less likely to shake off sad feelings. Those feelings of stress and depression also held true for children who were actually normal weight or underweight.

"Weight perception may actually transcend actual body weight as a predictor of negative psychological effects," said lead researcher Bin Xie, M.D.

Xie, an assistant research professor at the school of social work at the University of Southern California, said the study underscores the need to incorporate body-image education in efforts to prevent teenage obesity.

Overweight perception correct or incorrect was also associated with poorer academic performance among girls. Girls who said they were overweight reported an overall grade point average of 3.06 versus 3.20 for other girls.

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The study, which appears in the latest American Journal of Health Behavior, includes 6,863 middle- and high-school students in seven Chinese cities. Researchers used questionnaires to collect information on the childrens academic performance, stress levels and feelings of depression and hostility.

The researchers also measured each childs weight and height to calculate body mass index, a tool for assessing risk for obesity.

Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the school of public health at the University of Minnesota, said cultivating positive body image may help teens sidestep destructive behavior.

"Many teenagers, particularly girls, but also boys, feel dissatisfied with their bodies and then they engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors in order to lose the weight quickly," she said.

Neumark-Sztainer, who was not involved in the University of Southern California study, said that overweight teens dont automatically have poor body image; instead, self-image is often tied to whether or not a teens family accepts him or her.

Excess pounds were once prized as signs of affluence and stature in China, Xie said, but the norms for body image are evolving. "Those beauty standards have shifted and changed, and its happened in both girls and boys," he said.

Xie said that increased affluence and media exposure to Western lifestyle have ushered in new nutrition and physical activity habits that come with higher rates of death and illness from chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Xie B, et al. Weight perception, academic performance, and psychological factors in Chinese adolescents. Amer J Health Behav 30(2):115-124, 2006.

Source: Center for the Advancement of Health