Short stuff: Health roundupAdolescent girls who rank themselves on the lower rungs of their schools’ social ladders might be more likely to gain weight over time than classmates with a more positive social self-perception, new research suggests.
"We know that poor diet and lack of exercise contribute to weight gain, but the social-emotional factor hasn’t been explored as much," says the study’s lead author, Adina Lemeshow, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Part of the Growing Up Today Study, researchers looked at data collected from girls ages 12 to 18 over two years. The girls were asked to look at an image of a ladder and to rank their own personal perceived social standing, with the bottom being "people who no one respects" and the top representing "people in your school with the most respect and the highest standing."
"We found that how girls feel about themselves in relation to their peers can lead to weight gain," says Lemeshow, who now works at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The study found an increase in body mass index (BMI) over the two-year period for girls with lower subjective social status over their peers with higher social self-perception. This increase amounts to about an 11-pound excess weight gain.
"This is different from self esteem and it’s different from popularity," explains Lemeshow. "It is how popular you feel—not how popular you are."
Dr. Tanya R. Anderson, deputy clinical director of child and adolescent services with the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health, however, warns parents against over-interpreting the study.
Anderson stresses there are many factors involved in an adolescent’s weight. Some factors, such as level of activity and diet, can be modified to avoid weight gain.
Lemeshow agrees, noting that her study did not look for or identify reasons for the findings.
"I think it’s important that parents, teachers and mentors of teenage girls be aware that teenage girls may experience feelings of inferiority or social anxiety and that these feelings may ultimately lead to unhealthy behaviors," she says.
Anderson recommends parents seek their doctor’s advice anytime they are concerned.
"The most important thing is to be involved in your child’s life," she says.
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