Children who are overweight when they start school tend to struggle in their relationships with their peers a few years later, a new study has claimed.

A team at the University of Adelaide who followed more than 3,300 children over four years found that by the time the children were eight or nine, their parents were 15 per cent more likely to describe them as being isolated or teased.

Their teachers were also 20 per cent more likely to report that the children had emotional problems.

“The quality of peer relationships during this period of time has the potential to have a significant impact on children’s later mental health,” Professor Michael Sawyer, who led the study, was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail.

In their study, the researchers questioned the children when they were four or five and again four years later.

Questions involved measures of children’s mental and behavioural health, such as emotional problems, hyperactivity and social skills. Children also had their weight and height checked at each age.

As they started school 17.5 per cent of boys and 21.2 per cent of girls were classed overweight or obese. At ages eight and nine, parents and teachers were far more likely to be concerned about how these children interacted with their peers.

Commenting on the study, which was published in journal Pediatrics, Prof Christina Calamaro from the University of Maryland said, “It’s interesting that we’re seeing these problems at an early age.

“I think this speaks the fact that health care providers need to take weight into consideration at an earlier age, so we can cut it off at the pass before they hit middle school.”

The authors said that the stigma of being overweight can translate into social struggles for these children. Larger youngsters may withdraw themselves from social activities for fear of being teased. Obese children are also more likely to be bullied, they said.

However, the researchers did not find any differences between the heavy children and the normal weight children in their risk of mental health problems, such as hyperactivity or conduct disorders.

Other studies have found that later in life, obesity puts adults at greater risk of developing a mental illness such as depression or anxiety.

Professor Sawyer said he would like to continue following the children to see whether the social problems his study revealed might be precursors to later mental health problems.

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