New research shows weight-based teasing causes kids to pack on pounds. Experts explain why and how parents can help.
Child weighing himself
Credit: Emma Darvick

June 5, 2019

It's no secret children who are overweight are targets for bullying in school. In fact, more than 90 percent of elementary school children have witnessed weight-related bullying. And with childhood obesity more than tripling since the 1970s, the teasing is likely not going to slow down. But new research makes it clear that "weight-based teasing" can affect a child—even years after being teased. 

The study, published last week in the journal Pediatric Obesity, found kids who are taunted for how much they weigh end up gaining more weight down the road. 

Researchers with the National Institutes of Health began following 110 youths with overweight or obesity or at-risk (children with two parents with overweight or obesity) at around 12 years old. During the baseline visit, 62 percent of children with overweight or obesity said they had been teased for their size, compared to 21 percent from the other group.

For up to 15 years, researchers collected information annually about the participant's height, weight, and body fat mass. “We assessed whether weight-based teasing at that initial visit in childhood was linked with greater weight and fat gain over time,” says Natasha Schvey, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of medical and clinical psychology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

The results? Kids who reported high weight-based teasing at the baseline visit experienced a 33 percent greater gain in body mass index (BMI) and a 91 percent greater gain in fat mass per year than peers who weren't teased. And the higher rates of teasing, the more weight gained.  

Why do children gain more weight when teased?

While this study was observational and didn't detail reasons for the results, previous research has linked body-shaming to negative behaviors—and some of them can certainly lead to weight gain.

Children who are teased for their weight may turn to binge-eating or eat more to cope with negative feelings. They may also stop engaging in physical activity completely. That's often because they don't want to emphasize their source of shame, says Ariella Silver, Psy.D., director of the psychology training program at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City. "They don't feel comfortable even moving their body in front of people or wearing clothing other people wear at the gym or in any way highlight that they may be in need of exercise," she adds.

Weight-based teasing is also a chronic stressor—and studies have linked stress with weight gain. Stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and often leads to the ingestion of fatty and sugary foods. "It’s possible that children who are experiencing greater weight-based teasing have greater concentrations of cortisol in their body as a result of that chronic stress,” explains Dr. Schvey.

How can parents help?

Weight-based teasing isn’t exclusive to just schools. Kids report it also occurs in their doctor's office and at home. But the latter can be a fundamental place for children to learn how to prevent future weight gain despite any teasing they may face. 

The first step is keeping communication open. Ask if your child is being exposed to any type of weight-based teasing, says Dr. Schvey. Then, instill "adaptive and positive coping" methods to deal with the negative feelings.

A big thing to focus on is using sensitive language. Parents should avoid "weight talk" and encourage healthy behaviors instead. When working with patients at the Center, which offers free health and wellness services to those aged 10 to 22, Dr. Silver avoids talking about how much a child weighs or their clothing size. Rather she discusses things like healthier food options and ways to increase physical activity.

And try not to single out a child who is overweight, even if they are the only one in the house who is. "If you're going to encourage one child to go for a walk after dinner then everybody should be lacing up their tennis shoes," says Dr. Schvey. Same goes for what's on the dinner plate: don't give the child struggling with their weight fruit for dessert, but allow siblings to eat a brownie. Bottom line: "Ensure house rules apply to everybody," she adds.