Overweight children have more unreciprocated friendships and “frenemies” than thinner kids the same age due to “fat shaming,” according to a new study.
Researchers say their “alarming” findings suggest fat youngsters are “excluded” from friendships due to their weight.
And such “negative social interactions” can increase the risk of overweight youngsters suffering from loneliness, depression, poor eating habits and illness
A survey of 504 pre-teen kids in The Netherlands found that overweight children are not only shut out of friendships, but call classmates friends when the feeling is not mutual and are disliked by their peers.
And overweight children also dislike more classmates than their thinner peers, according to the findings.
Researchers say such heightened negative relationships take a “mental, social and physical toll.”
Study lead author Doctor Kayla de la Haye, of the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), said: “Our finding is alarming because if we continue to have social environments where fat shaming is the norm, these kids will continue to be ostracised.
“Those adverse interactions increase the risk of loneliness, depression, poor eating habits and illness.”
Although overweight children, on average, listed as many people in the “friend” category as children with healthy weight, they were 1.7 times more likely to be disliked and 1.2 times more likely to dislike their peers.
Dr de la Haye said the combined tendencies indicate that overweight children are generally involved in more unreciprocated friendships and mutual frenemy relationships.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, included 714 students, 210 of whom were nominated as friends but did not take the survey.
Dr de la Haye said: “Research by others has shown people who chronically feel isolated, lonely or socially disconnected experience greater inflammation and reduced viral suppression.
“We’re not sure if that’s at play here, but a consistent body of research shows that negative social relationships can go under the skin and affect health.”
Worldwide, childhood obesity has increased by 31 per cent in a little over two decades with around 42 million overweight or obese children in 2013, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The study was based on questionnaires that 504 pre-teens answered in The Netherlands when they were aged 10 to 12.
Participants in 28 classes listed their best friends and their enemies. On average, 26 students participated per classroom.
Children were assigned weight categories based on their body mass index (BMI). Around one in six of the participants (16 per cent) were overweight.
Researchers controlled for gender because it can steer friendships and omitted children who had skipped a grade or who were held back a grade.
On average, children were listed as a friend by five of their classmates and as an enemy by two.
But overweight kids typically were considered a friend by just four classmates and were disliked by three.
Dr de la Haye said: “This social environment characterised by fewer friendships and more antipathies is likely to put overweight youth at increased risk for psychosocial maladjustment.
“The resulting social isolation may also promote unhealthy behaviours, such as excessive food intake and decreased participation in sports and physical activities, which can lead to further weight gain and thus a cycle of poor physical and social outcomes.”
Dr de la Haye said that, unfortunately, it seems overweight children tend to have fewer friends and be friends with less popular kids who also tend to be overweight.
She added: “We want to reduce the stigma of being overweight.
“We have anti-bullying campaigns based on sexual identity, race and ethnicity. We should do more to integrate obesity in our anti-bullying repertoire.”