A recent article in USA Today highlighted two research studies, which showed that when overweight children feel ostracized or left out, they tend to eat more and exercise less.  Both studies were conducted at the University of Buffalo where scientists have been studying the effects of different situations on children’s food intake and activity levels for a few years now.

In both studies, the kids would play a computer game that replicated ball tossing.  One set of overweight and normal-weight children’s characters were excluded or ostracized in the game and another set of normal and overweight children’s characters were included.  For the research study centered on food intake, the children from both sets (excluded and included) had a chance to eat as much as they wanted for about 15 minutes after playing the game.  The overweight children ate 200 calories more when their video character was excluded from the game than when the character was included.  The normal-weight children didn’t eat more when their video characters were excluded or left out.  Assistant Professor Sarah-Jeanne Salvy, lead researcher for these studies, thinks one possible reason for this is that overweight children seek food for comfort after they feel ignored.

In the study that focused on activity level, the findings were that both the normal-weight and the overweight children were less physically active after their video characters were ostracized or left out.

The findings of these two studies speak to a snowball effect that could likely happen for children who are overweight or obese.  Overweight and obese children, unfortunately, are often left out, ignored, or ostracized by their peers in all types of situations, whether they be social or physical, like in gym class or on sports teams.  These types of situations can cause them to overeat and to be less physically active, which will cause more weight gain which, in turn, will lead to more situations of being left out or ostracized.  It is a vicious cycle.  How do we break it?

If you are a parent with an overweight or obese child, it is important to address the emotional issues underlying your child’s weight gain, as well as the tendency to seek comfort from food, sometimes called emotional eating.  For some children, it may be beyond the parent’s scope and ability to tackle this all themselves, in which case it may be necessary to seek the help of a licensed therapist or counselor in order to help your child fully deal with these types of issues.  Also, it would be wise to encourage any and all physical activity your child shows interest in.  They may feel too ostracized by their peers to be ready for any organized sports, but they could very well be up for a hike or bike ride with you, for instance.  Incorporating physical activity into family activities is a great way to increase activity levels in your overweight child.

On the other end of the spectrum, if your child is of normal weight, you could help tremendously by encouraging your child to include those kids who are often left out and ostracized.  It is hard for kids to do this completely of their own volition, because being accepted is so important to children and teenagers.  But if you can instill the important values of being kind, empathetic, inclusive, and non-judgmental, you will not only help the overweight children, you will also help your own child grow up to be a thoughtful, generous, kind, accepting adult.