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Obesity and Mental Health in Adolescents

Yesterday, I hosted another of my Bariatric Lunch Forums that can be viewed via the TeleHealth Network in Alberta.

My guest on the forum was Geoff Ball, Director of the Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health (PCWH) here in Edmonton. While the program focuses on family interventions, Geoff emphasized the importance of psychological issues (both in the kids and their parents) that often prove important promoters of weight gain and/or barriers to weight management.

Indeed, I have previously blogged about studies showing that mental health issues are common in overweight and obese kids and can be important predictors of obesity in adulthood.

Now a new obesity study by Rhonda BeLue and colleagues from Penn State University, PA, published in the latest issue of Pediatrics, examines the relationship between mental health problems and overweight in a nationally representative sample of US youth aged 12 to 17 years.

The study specifically focuses on whether the association between mental health problems and weight is moderated by race and ethnicity in the 2003 National Survey on Children’s Health data.

Compared with their nonoverweight counterparts, both white and Hispanic youth who were overweight were significantly more likely to report depression or anxiety, feelings of worthlessness or inferiority, behavior problems, and bullying of others. In black subjects, only the physician diagnosis of depression was more frequent in overweight kids.

The results of this study not only emphasizes the important need for assessing mental health problems when addressing overweight and obesity in kids, but also that this relationship may differ between ethnic groups.

As in the adult population, it appears more and more evident that the obesity epidemic is not just a matter of individuals and families making poor choices and not moving enough – clearly, the obesity epidemic is part of a much bigger mental health issue that is affecting vast proportions of society.

If I had to bet on what comes first (the chicken or egg question), I’d be placing my money on mental health issues.

I believe it is safe to predict that any approach to solving the obesity crisis without due attention to the much broader mental health problem is doomed to failure.

While clearly not all overweight and obese kids or adults have mental health problems; but for the ones that do, addressing these issues is key to managing their weight.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. While I suppose it’s possible that there are obese people who are not also emotionally challenged, I have never met one. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I had years of therapy before I even began my over-200-pound weight loss journey ( thank you Richard Simmons! ) and have continued counseling to the present day.

    There were many issues that needed to be addressed before I started losing, and the loss itself released a whole new category of problems that needed to be addressed.

    Sadly, I can trace my emotional deterioration to teenage years and even childhood, and had they had been adequately addressed then, I may never have traveled the obesity path that I did. Thank you for recognizing and publishing about that all-important part of weight management.

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  2. I have to agree with the other Laura. I had depression from an early age, which got worse when my Dad died while I was in high school – my motivating factor for study had gone, and no-one else cared what I was doing. I’d never been a social kid; Dad frowned upon friends. They only wanted to play with my toys! Mum was too ill herself with schizophrenia, depression, & M.E. Already I was an outcast due to my weight.

    Food was always comforting. Food was always there. I was a spoilt child & always got my way – sadly this didn’t change when I met my husband (suffering undiagnosed depression) – now we are both trying to alter our diet, go for walks, and oh I have PCOS too! So I’ve really really got to lose weight now, the clock is ticking.

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