How is Childhood Obesity a Social Problem?

For the past 35 years, obesity has been on the rise, affecting the healthcare system, families, and communities.  It is a major pressing health issue, complex and multifactorial because it shapes the way an individual interacts with other people and his/her social and physical environment.  Obesity shapes social ties and connections both present and for the future, and the educational and occupational life course of an individual.

Obesity is closely linked with numerous health conditions, which include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea, gallstones, kidney stones, infertility, and as many as 11 types of cancers, including leukemia, breast, and colon cancer.  However, the social effects of obesity, including discrimination, lower wages, lower quality of life, and a likely susceptibility to depression are also as imminent as the health effects.

There are numerous ways in which obesity becomes a social problem, all of which can be rectified; with a little awareness.

  1. Discrimination

Children with obesity often face stigmatization and discrimination, especially due to the stereotypes that people have of them.  Many times, children with obesity are thought of as lazy, less competent, lacking self-discipline, sloppy, non-compliant, and slow.  What is worse, these stereotypes are rarely challenged, especially in the fast-paced world we live in today. Weight bias is an issue in education, healthcare, and interpersonal relationships. 

  • Education: students who have obesity tend to be discriminated against in school, especially during social activities.  Over time, they find school to be a nuisance and tend to drop out or get homeschooled

Obesity is the fourth most widespread form of discrimination in the United States, in a list where sex discrimination is first, followed by age discrimination, then race discrimination.  There are numerous negative effects of weight discrimination, i.e. depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lower self-acceptance, body image dissatisfaction, poorer life quality, and poorer life satisfaction.

Contrary to the belief that weight discrimination encourages weight loss, it has been proven that people who experience weight discrimination are more likely to indulge in behaviors that promote the onset or progression of obesity.  Such behavior includes refusal to diet, eating disorders, avoiding physical activity, and more energy intake. Moreover, the stress caused by weight stigmatization affects the overall wellness of people living with obesity.

  1. Lower quality of life 

Children living with obesity have reported impaired physical and mental quality of life.  Although healthcare professionals recommend lifestyle changes for these individuals, life satisfaction is another construct determined by the mental status of children living with obesity.  A sustainable change in diet and physical activity is great for weight loss, but life satisfaction comes with self-acceptance.

Children living with obesity require losing weight, improving mental health and physical fitness, and reducing obesity-related medical problems to lead a fulfilling life.  Self-management of fitness and eating habits is independently associated with life satisfaction and therefore, a better quality of life. However, it can be hard for someone who is overweight to self-manage their lifestyle, but there are options for them that can keep them accountable such as keeping a diary and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

  1. Lower quality of education

National Health Education Standards (NHES) written by the Joint Committee on National Health Education Standards from the CDC were initially created to establish, promote, and support health-enhancing behaviors in all grade levels.  The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has also recommended Strategies to Increase Physical Activity among Youth that school settings should serve as an essential component of a national strategy to increase physical activity, along with preschool and childcare center settings providing increased physical activity opportunities. 

However, the stereotypes associated with children who are overweight are also translated in schools among their peers, and this can be hard on kids.  Often, children who are overweight are made fun of and called names; which eventually affects their mental health. Although bullying is an issue that is slowly being solved, weight stigmatization lowers the quality of education for overweight children because it is not challenged by the government or education institutions.  Prejudice, social rejection, and overt unfair treatment are a legitimate barrier to prevention, intervention, and treatment of obesity, and they impair the quality of education for children with obesity.

Living with obesity can be tough, but discrimination against people who live with obesity makes it harder for them.  Although some of these issues are meant to be helpful, the real type of help comes from a place of love and understanding.  Every social issue, even obesity, can only be solved with tenderness and good intentions.

Evelyn Murtis Bio