WEDNESDAY, Jan. 5, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- It may not come as a surprise to anyone who's ever heard an overweight child getting teased in the schoolyard, but a new study reports that kids who are overweight or obese have a lower quality of life than their normal-weight peers.
"The impact of childhood overweight is not restricted to severely obese children," said study author Joanne Williams, a senior research fellow at Royal Children's Hospital and Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Parkville, Australia.
According to the study, children and their parents reported that physical, emotional and social well-being decreased as soon as a child's weight began to rise above average.
"Elementary school children who are either overweight or obese experience significant psychosocial effects which are likely to impact on their self-image and self-esteem. The psychological impact of this may remain with them for the rest of their lives, regardless of whether or not they are overweight later in life," she added.
Dr. Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at the Nutrition Evaluation Clinic at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said this study highlights the importance of preventing excess weight gain by youngsters.
"We wouldn't only be preventing medical issues like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but also quality-of-life issues," she said.
These quality-of-life issues are affecting an ever-increasing part of the population. The study reports that in many countries about one in four people are either overweight or obese. In the United States, the American Obesity Association reports that as many as one in six children can be classified as obese.
Results of the study appear in the Jan. 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
For the study, Williams and her colleagues recruited 1,456 children from 24 schools in Australia. They were between the ages of 9 and 12, with an average age of 10. The researchers measured each child's height and weight.
Every child and one parent also completed a survey assessing the child's quality of life. The survey, called the Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory, asked questions about a child's physical, emotional, social and school issues.
The survey included statements such as "It is hard for me to run," or "Other kids tease me," and were answered using a scale of zero through four, with zero meaning never and four meaning almost always.
Twenty percent of the children surveyed were overweight and slightly more than 4 percent were obese.
As a child's weight increased, his or her survey score decreased, indicating a lower quality of life. The average score in parent surveys was 83.1 for children who were not overweight, 80 for overweight children and 75 for obese youngsters. The average score for children's surveys was 80.5 for non-overweight kids, 79.3 for overweight youngsters and 74 for obese children.
"In addition to the physical health consequences of childhood obesity, there are important psychosocial consequences and these are not restricted to severely obese children," said Williams.
Dr. Jeffrey Zitsman, co-director of the Adolescent Obesity Program at The Children's Hospital at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, said the new study shows "even being overweight has its own diminishing effect on a child's quality of life."
"Controlling a child's weight is paramount, both from a health standpoint and because of the psychological problems that arise from being overweight," Zitsman said.
Both Zitsman and Unger recommended intervening as quickly as possible if a child is getting too heavy. They suggested limiting high caloric foods and sugary beverages, and emphasized the importance of getting children to exercise.
Unger said children should be active every day, and engage in vigorous exercise at least three times a week. She said parents should look for opportunities to increase their child's activity level, such as walking to school or walking to do errands. She also suggested getting your child a pedometer to see how many steps he or she takes a day, and try to increase that to 10,000 per day.
She said lifestyle changes need to be a family affair and that parents need to demonstrate healthy behavior.
"Show children that you put a priority on being active and eating healthy," Unger said.
To learn more about childhood obesity, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.