Childhood Obesity and Mental Health

July 26, 2023 by

We spent the last few weeks at Children’s National Hospital as part of a 3 week fellowship program with Atlantis. During that time we worked with the Child Health Advocacy Institute to dig deep into the issue of food insecurity and obesity in Washington D.C. We focused specifically on the intersection of obesity and mental health.

We learned how childhood obesity goes beyond physical health concerns; it significantly affects the mental well-being of these children as well. As obesity rates among children continue to rise, a troubling correlation between obesity and mental health problems has emerged. This issue is particularly pronounced in certain communities, such as Wards 7 and 8 in Washington, D.C., which have high poverty rates and predominantly African American populations.

Racial disparities are apparent in childhood obesity, with a higher prevalence among Black residents compared to their White counterparts. In Washington, D.C., for example, one in 10 White residents is obese compared to one in three Black residents.  Moreover, low-income households are more likely to have obese children. Although specific data on childhood obesity rates in Wards 7 and 8 is limited, given the overall obesity rates in these communities and the influence of income and race, it is likely that the two neighborhoods face the highest childhood obesity rates.

Mental Health and Obesity

Mental health is influenced by societal, community, and medical factors. In the context of childhood obesity, poverty, and race play significant roles. Limited financial resources often lead families to rely on inexpensive, processed foods with little nutritional value, contributing to obesity. Lack of funds also restricts access to organized sports and safe recreational spaces, further exacerbating the sedentary lifestyle of children in low-income areas. These factors, combined with isolation resulting from obesity, have a detrimental impact on mental health. Addressing food insecurity and promoting physical activity is therefore crucial for mitigating the mental health effects associated with childhood obesity.

The intersection of race and weight can be particularly challenging for Black children facing obesity. Research has shown a higher risk of suicide attempts among obese Black individuals compared to their White counterparts. Obesity is also associated with an increased likelihood of developing psychological disorders. When children experience poverty, food insecurity, and obesity, their risks multiply, underscoring the urgent need for intervention and support.

Children’s National Hospital Obesity Program: IDEAL

While working with Children’s National Hospital we learned about the hospital’s Improving Diet, Energy and Activity for Life (IDEAL) clinic. This clinic offers a comprehensive program to address mental health issues arising from obesity. The IDEAL program focuses on weight loss, health education, research, advocacy, and education, with the ultimate goal of preventing and intervening in childhood obesity.

The program brings together a dedicated team of researchers, physicians, and healthcare professionals to support children struggling with obesity. Candidates for the program have a BMI above the 95th percentile, are 2 to 18 years old, and exhibit higher risks for conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, and disabilities. The IDEAL clinic provides regular check-ins every four to eight weeks for up to one year, allowing for personalized care and monitoring.

A crucial aspect of the IDEAL program is its family-centered approach, recognizing that obesity is influenced by social, behavioral, and environmental factors. By involving family members, friends, and other supporters, the program promotes positive changes and helps participants navigate their weight loss journey successfully. Family-centered programs also educate families on behaviors and habits that promote physical and mental well-being, preparing children for the transition to adolescence and adulthood.

Childhood obesity’s impact on mental health cannot be overlooked, and the IDEAL program at Children’s National Hospital is well-equipped to address this multifaceted issue. By providing support for psychological well-being through family-centered care, the program acknowledges the interconnectedness of mental health and obesity.

Header photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

About the author

Atlantis Fellows

Jay Bolla (East Carolina University),  Alexandra DaCosta (University of South Florida), Isabel Fernandes (Fairleigh Dickinson University) and Victoria Laflamme (Laurentian University)