Body dissatisfaction in childhood may be linked to an increased risk of depression during adolescence, particularly among young girls. This is what reveals a new study carried out by British researchers, who suggest putting in place measures and strategies to prevent these mental health disorders.
Certain injunctions linked to appearance could have serious consequences on the mental health of children, even when they are not conveyed voluntarily. This could be the case for certain public health messages and strategies, intended to promote – rightly – healthy eating and physical exercise, but which could unintentionally cause physical discomfort in younger populations. A problem addressed by a team of researchers from University College London (UCL), whose work was published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.
Their research was based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal cohort representative of the general population of British children born between September 1, 2000 and January 11, 2002. A total of 13,135 participants were included in the study . At the end of their work, the researchers observed that a high body mass index (BMI) at the age of 7 – the average age of the participants at the start of the study – was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms at age 14, as well as greater body dissatisfaction at age 11. Among the symptoms observed are loss of pleasure, lack of concentration, or even gloom.
A link between physical discomfort and depression
“Here we found strong longitudinal evidence that high BMI in childhood is linked to increased risk of depressive symptoms several years later. But we were particularly interested in the extent to which body dissatisfaction might be driving this link. We found strong evidence that being unhappy with one’s appearance is linked to increased depressive symptoms years later. Our findings suggest that any efforts to reduce weight during childhood must consider its potential effects on mental health, to avoid stigmatizing weight and instead promote children’s mental health and well-being.“, explains Dr Francesca Solmi, one of the authors of the study, in a press release.
The researchers point out that their work did not include certain factors, whether biological or environmental, which could explain why children with a high BMI could have an increased risk of developing depressive symptoms a few years later. However, they emphasize that body dissatisfaction explains this association to the tune of 43%, and that girls are more affected than boys.
This lack of self-esteem could be explained in particular – although the study does not prove it in any way – by a poor perception of prevention messages and public health strategies intended to prevent overweight and obesity, and more largely to encourage a healthy lifestyle. A response in particular to the increase in cases of overweight and obesity observed for several years. If these measures are fully justified, the researchers suggest that they could “inadvertently” cause physical discomfort in the children affected.
“Many public health strategies aim to reduce childhood weight. Primary school children are taught the importance of calories and exercise, and all young Englishmen are weighed at school to determine whether weight loss efforts are necessary. While it is important to promote healthy eating and exercise, some public health messages may trigger feelings of guilt or shame.“, indicates Emma Blundell, main author of this research. And adds: “It is important to ensure that interventions aimed at reducing BMI during childhood do not inadvertently increase body dissatisfaction and harm children’s mental health“.
The researchers emphasize the importance of deepening this research to look more specifically at solutions intended to eliminate concerns related to physical appearance among younger populations. “Reducing body dissatisfaction in young people could be an important way to prevent depression, particularly in girls, at an age when social environments and peer relationships are becoming increasingly influential,” concludes Dr Francesca Solmi.
According to data made public by the World Health Organization in 2021, 14% of adolescents or young adults aged 10 to 19 suffer from mental disorders worldwide. This exposes them to risky behavior, physical health problems, stigma, or even social exclusion. Earlier, in 2017, the world health authority reported that cases of obesity among children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 had increased tenfold over the past four decades.