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Obese kids are more likely to be bullied, pediatric study finds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16, 2010 - A  study suggests that first lady Michelle Obama might want to add another item to her list of problems affecting children who are obese -- bullying. Overweight youngsters are more likely to be bullied than other children, according to a study to be published in the Jun issue of Pediatrics journal.

The study, led by Dr. Julie C. Lumeng, a professor in pediatrics at the University of Michigan, recruited 821 children from nearly a dozen sites around the country. The goal was to determine the connection between a child's weight and the odds of being bullied as reported by children, mothers and teachers.

Obese children had higher odds of being bullied no matter their gender, race, family socioeconomic status, social skills or academic achievement, researchers found.

Although the study said obesity and bullying were pervasive public health problems, no data connecting the two were immediately available for the St. Louis area. Cathy Hutter, a pediatric clinical psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, says the two issues may come up when youngsters are brought to the hospital's clinic for other reasons.

"Bullying is fairly prevalent anyway," she says, "but I think that obese kids are probably just an easy target for bullies. Kids notice when others are different from them, and when others are overweight. It's something that's apparent to even young children."

Children are usually referred to the clinic for other emotional and behavioral issues, she says.

"In the process of interviewing them and getting to know them, we sometimes discover that the bullying is related to why they are presented at our clinic." She agreed with the Michigan-led study that "obese children who are bullied experience more depression, anxiety and loneliness."

Although the study did not look into interventions, Hutter notes, reducing bullying would mean obese children would be less of a target. Hutter adds: "One of the things that children are often told is to just ignore the bullying and it will stop.

"I think that's bad advice -- not that it might not work sometimes. Bullying is really best dealt with as a systemic problem, meaning that schools need to be involved in protecting kids and making sure it doesn't happen in the school."

Bullies like the attention they get from spectators and bystanders, Hutter says.

"Kids may be watching bullying going on with a classmate and not know what to do. Parents, teachers and administrators need to empower the bystanders with the message that this is not right, that we do not approve of it and there will be punishment for bullying."

Parents of obese children say bullying is their top health concern, according to the study.

Hutter says parents need to keep an open line of communication with their children.

"The best strategy is for parents to be very supportive of their kids and go to school and talk with (the teacher or the counselor) about what's going on. Ask them to be part of the team to deal with bullying."

In February, Obama launched her Let's Move! campaign to address childhood obesity. The initiative is part of a childhood obesity task force set up by her husband, President Barack Obama.

This week, the task force announced its plan of action, with a goal of returning the nation to a childhood obesity rate of 5 percent by 2030, which was the rate before childhood obesity first began to rise in the late 1970s. The Michigan-led study reported that the problem is so widespread that an estimated 17 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are obese.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.