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The health risks of being overweight or obese are well-documented. Extra pounds increase the likelihood of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, even among children. New research also documents significant social and economic consequences of being chronically overweight or obese since childhood. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: Philippa Clarke, a researcher at the University of Michigan, wanted to know what happens to people who've been overweight or obese since adolescence. She compared one group of 40-year-olds, who were normal weight at high school graduation but who gained weight gradually over time, to another group of 40-year-olds, who were overweight since age 19.
Ms. PHILIPPA CLARKE (University of Michigan): We found that those people who are persistently overweight were more likely to not have gone on to have any further education beyond their high school degree, to be receiving welfare or unemployment compensation at age 40, and to have no current partner.
NEIGHMOND: Clarke says her study didn't address why, but she speculates these adults probably experienced discrimination as children - discrimination that diminished their self-esteem and in turn, their aspirations.
Other research supports that theory. Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell has done research showing that overweight kids are far are more likely to report being teased.
Mr. KELLY BROWNELL (Psychologist, Yale University): Teasing that comes directly from teachers, in some cases; certainly, from peers; sometimes even by their own families. This gets internalized so overweight children feel inferior, feel like there's something defective with themselves and therefore, they tend not to aspire. And this isn't true in all cases, but a lot of them tend not to aspire to such heights because they don't believe they deserve it.
NEIGHMOND: Brownell says his studies have shown that overweight people are 26 times more likely to report discrimination than their normal-weight counterparts. And Brownell says discrimination against overweight individuals has increased significantly over the past decade despite the fact that more adults are becoming overweight.
One of the reasons, he says, may be that people think overweight adults have only themselves to blame. They should eat less and exercise more. But Brownell says blame is simply unreasonable, particularly when it comes to children and weight and especially in low-income neighborhoods, where markets are often inadequate, and places to exercise are nearly nonexistent.
Mr. BROWNELL: The social climate and our toxic food environment is so disastrous that more and more people are having trouble resisting it. And that's really what's explaining the high prevalence of obesity. So it's unfair to put people in an environment where weight gain is a very, very strong possibility and then to blame them for having the problem.
NEIGHMOND: Changing the environment is a key to solving the problem. Pediatrician Joe Thompson is a specialist in childhood obesity at the University of Arkansas College Of Medicine. Over the past decade, Thompson says, the state's made changes in schools to promote an environment where it's easier for kids to make healthy choices.
Dr. JOE THOMPSON (University of Arkansas College of Medicine): In Arkansas, we've actually tried to change the offerings in our school cafeterias, and tried to restrict some of the less nutritious available foods in vending machines and others - throughout the school campus.
NEIGHMOND: And Thompson says those efforts have paid off.
Dr. THOMPSON: The rate of the epidemic has slowed nationwide, and we have actually shown a halt to the epidemic.
NEIGHMOND: Supporting research findings that suggest the best way to confront the medical and social effects of being overweight or obese is to prevent it in the first place.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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