Another Downside to Obesity for Teens: Fewer Friends
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"This is especially troubling since friendships are important sources of support and companionship," study co-author Sandra Simpkins, an associate professor a Arizona State University's School of Social and Family Dynamics, said in a university news release.
"Not having or losing friends is associated with higher depression and lower self-worth for young people, which could exacerbate the health problems associated with being overweight," she added.
In the study, the researchers analyzed survey data on almost 59,000 students, averaging 15 years of age, from 88 middle and high schools. About a fifth of the students provided information on their body-mass index (BMI) - a measurement used to determine if someone is a healthy weight for their height.
The students also listed their five closest female friends and their five closest male friends.
The researchers then examined how and when the teens made friends -- for example, if they met through activities or mutual friends or if they had common interests.
The study found that although overweight teens are mostly unconcerned about the weight of their friends, they are more likely to be rejected as friends by their normal-weight peers. And when their offer of friendship is refused, overweight teens often turn to befriending other overweight young people.
Since they are socially marginalized, overweight teens have, on average, one fewer friend than normal-weight teens, the study found.
"We found consistent evidence that overweight youth choose non-overweight friends more often than they were selected in return," study co-author David Schaefer, associate professor in the university's School of Human Evolution and Social Change, said in the news release.
Being rejected due to extra weight may be especially tough during the teenage years, the researchers said. In those years, "intimacy and fitting into peer groups is critical," Schaefer said.
However, he added that "it's important to keep in mind that overweight youth still have lots of friends. Having just one friend makes a big difference. And, it's less important how many friends teens have; what is key is that those friends are supportive."
The findings were published May 15 in the American Journal of Public Health .
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
SOURCE: Arizona State University, news release, May 15, 2014.