Bullying and teasing, diabetes and asthma—the costs of childhood obesity are far-reaching. Now, for the first time, scientists have found obesity also keeps kids out of school. 

“In addition to the medical and psychosocial consequences of obesity and excess weight, heavier children have greater risk for school absenteeism than normal-weight children,” says Gary Foster, PhD, a professor of medicine and public health, and director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education, at Temple University. “And as the rate of childhood obesity increases, school absenteeism can be expected to increase.”   

Dr. Foster’s study, published in this month’s issue of the journal Obesity, focused on more than 1,000 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from Philadelphia elementary schools. The researchers found overweight children were absent significantly more than normal-weight children: 12 days vs. 10 days over the course of the school year. Weight ranges were determined using body mass index. 

“Because every school day is crucial to students’ academic success, absenteeism hurts, especially those already struggling with school,” says study coauthor Joan Nachmani, director of the Nutrition Education Program at the School District of Philadelphia.   

Nachmani fears there’s also a subgroup of children who aren’t captured in these statistics: those who are homebound because of their obesity, unable to walk to school, withstand teasing from other students or overcome obesity-related problems. 

As with adults, excess weight among U.S. children and adolescents is a serious problem that continues to worsen. In fact, since 1980, the number of overweight 6- to 11-year-olds and 12- to 19-year-olds has tripled to 18.8% and 17.4%, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among minorities, obesity disproportionately strikes Mexican-American and non-Hispanic black children. 

Previous studies have linked the rise in overweight children to increases in medical problems associated with excess weight, such as type-2 diabetes, hypertension and metabolic syndrome. Overweight children also suffer psychologically and socially—from rejection and bullying by other kids to behavior problems. 

“For all these reasons, heavier children might be missing school,” Dr. Foster says. “They might also stay home more often on days when they have physical education class because it’s harder for them to perform the physical activity.”  

Dr. Foster encourages future studies that take a closer look at the connection between obesity-related absenteeism and poor academic performance, as well as parents’ educational level and household income. 

Experts hope schools can have a positive impact on reducing excess weight and obesity in children through healthier school lunches and physical activity programs. But as the current study shows, the kids who need it most may not be in school to benefit, Dr. Foster says. 

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