According to data released by the World Health Organization in 2021, 14% of adolescents and young adults aged 10-19 worldwide suffer from mental disorders. This makes them more vulnerable to risk-taking behaviour, physical health problems, discrimination, and social exclusion.
A recent British study now suggests that dissatisfaction with one’s body in childhood could be linked to an increased risk of depression during adolescence, particularly in young girls. This has prompted the researchers from University College London to recommend that preventative measures and strategies be put in place.
Their study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, was based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, representative of the general population of British children born between Sept 1, 2000 and Jan 11, 2002. A total of 13,135 participants were included in this study.
At the end of their work, the researchers observed that a high body mass index (BMI) at age seven – the average age of the participants at the start of the study – was associated with greater body dissatisfaction at age 11 and an increase in depressive symptoms at age 14. Symptoms included low mood, loss of pleasure and poor concentration.
“We have found strong longitudinal evidence that a high BMI in childhood is linked with an increased risk of depressive symptoms multiple years later,” the authors wrote.
“Our findings suggest that any efforts to reduce weight in childhood need to consider their potential mental health impacts, so that we can avoid stigmatising weight and instead support children’s mental health and wellbeing.”
The researchers noted that their work did not include certain factors, biological or environmental, that might explain why children with a high BMI might have an increased risk of developing depressive symptoms a few years later.
They, however, observed that body dissatisfaction was a “major contributor”, accounting for 43% of the association, and that girls are more affected than boys.
This lack of self-esteem could be explained – although the study did not test this theory – by poor perception of prevention messages and public health strategies designed to prevent overweight and obesity and more generally to encourage a healthy lifestyle.
Such campaigns have been rolled out, in particular, in response to the rise in cases of overweight and obesity observed over the last few years. While such measures are justified, the researchers suggest that they could “inadvertently” cause the children concerned to feel unease about their own bodies.
“Many public health strategies seek to reduce weight in childhood. Primary school children are being taught about the importance of calories and exercise, and young people in England, for example, are being weighed at school to determine whether weight-loss efforts are needed,” first author Emma Blundell noted.
“While promoting healthy diet and exercise is important, it could be that some public health messaging could be fostering feelings of guilt or shame. It is important to ensure that any interventions to reduce BMI in childhood do not inadvertently increase body dissatisfaction and harm children’s mental health.”
The researchers emphasise the importance of taking this research further, to look more specifically at solutions designed to target concerns about physical appearance in younger populations.
“Reducing body dissatisfaction in young people could be an important way of preventing depression, particularly in girls, at ages when social environments and peer relations become increasingly impactful,” they concluded.