Childhood Obesity Affects School Performance

By Amir Khan on June 15, 2012 12:27 PM EDT

Obese
Obese children have a harder time with math than their skinnier classmates and also have poorer personal skills and emotional well-being, according to a new study (Photo: Creative Commons)

Obese children already face a myriad of health problems, from heart disease to diabetes and beyond, but according to a new study, published journal Child Developments on Thursday, they may have an addition problem to face -- a math problem.

Obese children have a harder time with math than their skinnier classmates, researchers found.  In addition, they have poorer personal skills and emotional well-being.

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"The findings illustrate the complex relationships among children's weight, social and emotional well-being, academics and time," Sara Gable, study author and associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said in a statement. "Our study suggests that childhood obesity, especially obesity that persists throughout the elementary grades, can harm children's social and emotional well-being and academic performance."

Researchers looked at over 6,000 children found that those who were obese from the beginning of kindergarten up until the fifth grade performed significantly worse on math tests compared to their peers who were never obese. Boys who became obese later in life did not show the same drop in performance, but girls did.

The obese children also reported feeling sadder, lonelier and more anxious, which researchers said could have an effect on their math skills.

"Feelings of sadness or loneliness or anxiety in and of themselves may get in the way of school performance," Dr. Becky Hashim, a clinical child psychologist with the Children's Hospital in New York, who was not involved in the study, told Health.com. "It may be more difficult to pay attention. These kids may be less likely to ask a question."

More than 12.5 million American children ages 2 through 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the number of obese children has tripled since 1980. Health care costs related to childhood obesity totaled $3 billion in 2009, according to a study published in Nature.

In an effort to curb childhood obesity, the USDA introduced the "MyPlate" program, the current nutrition guide, which replaced the Food Pyramid on June 2, 2011 after 19 years. The MyPlate guide emphasizes fruits and vegetable, much like Michelle Obama's school lunch guidelines. Grains and proteins each make up a quarter. A glass of milk is off to the side, and desserts are no longer present.

"Parents don't have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving," Michelle Obama said when unveiling the program last summer. "But we do have time to take a look at our kids' plates. And as long as they're eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we're good. It's as simple as that."

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