Is bullying hindering the fight against childhood obesity?

Ireland looks set to be the most obese European nation by 2030

New evidence-based research shows that three out of five obese children experience bullying, resulting in 12% of them missing school.

Professionals are arguing that the issue could be hindering the fight against childhood obesity - concerning, given that Ireland is on track to become the most overweight European nation.

Speaking on The Pat Kenny Show, Dr Samantha Doyle said the obesity issue among Irish children has become significant.

"All of the children at the clinic [at Temple Street Hospital] have a BMI greater than the 98th centile, which is how we measure obesity in children," she said. 

Depending on the gender and age of the child, the average weight of a child between 6 and 16 years old attending the clinic is between 75kg and 85kg. Among the older age group, the average weight is in excess of 100kg.

Mental health

Of the 111 children studied, 63% experienced bullying. In some cases, they had also not previously spoken of the incidents with their parents.

"I think the alarming statistic is that just under 50% of the children were bullied by their peers," she said. "The rest of the bullying is happening at the hands of other adults. Children describe their neighbours saying mean things to them."

Dr Doyle also said internationally, cyberbullying is becoming an issue.

Despite 33% of parents reporting mental health problems among their children, only half of them receive medical help.

A vicious cycle?

Dr Doyle acknowledges that, in some cases, bullying is contributing to the children's over-eating, describing food as "the ultimate comforter".

"We ask the children 'do you eat more when you're sad or bored?' to find out if they are emotional eaters," she explained. "This is a massive barrier to treatment. We try and instigate physical activity as a very important element of a healthy lifestyle.

"But if the children are getting bullied in school, a lot of them describe very sad stories of PE classes where they're never chosen to be on a team. They're always left to last. Then they don't engage in the physical activity."

In cases where children are obese to begin with, Dr Doyle said it's more complicated than maintaining an energy balance.

"If you eat a lot and you exercise a lot, some people still do gain weight. Weight is one issue but it's [also about] metabolic health."

55% of children attending the clinic who show low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary behaviour have high blood sugars and high cholesterol, with some also presenting with insulin resistance.

What are we eating?

Dr Doyle added that there are issues with the way we label and market food to children, saying the breakdown of some labels requires "a PhD".

"What some parents are feeding their children, under the guise of healthiness, is actually loaded with sugar," she said.

She also acknowledged that junk food is often more readily available than healthier options.

"Look at children's parties now in comparison to those 25 or 30 years ago. What's acceptable to feed our children now in comparison to those 25 or 30 years ago. For sure, that plays a very big role."

Making the change

Ultimately, Dr Doyle recommended societal and legislative changes, including a sugar tax and addressing the availability of physical activity for young people.

What won't fix the problem? In her view, it's portioning blame, or simply putting it down to 'bad parenting'.

"Society has a role to play. Portioning blame on the parent is wrong, and it feeds into this statistic of 63% [...] No one goes out to harm their child's health.

"We need to stop looking at this in such a simplistic matter."