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Obesity in kids linked to lower math scores

U. MISSOURI (US) — The social and emotional toll of obesity may have negative effects on math performance for some children, a new study finds.

“The findings illustrate the complex relationships among children’s weight, social and emotional well-being, academics, and time,” says study leader Sara Gable, associate professor in the nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri.

Gable looked at more than 6,250 children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample. The children were followed from the time they started kindergarten through fifth grade.


At five points in time, parents provided information about their families, teachers reported on the children’s interpersonal skills and emotional well-being, and children were weighed and measured; they also took academic tests.

When compared with children who were never obese, boys and girls whose obesity persisted from the start of kindergarten through fifth grade performed worse on the math tests, starting in first grade. Their lower performance continued through fifth grade.

For boys whose obesity emerged later—in third or fifth grade—no such differences were found. For girls who became obese later, poorer math performance was temporary.

In addition, for girls who were persistently obese, having fewer social skills explained some part of their poorer math performance.

For both boys and girls who were persistently obese, feeling sadder, lonelier, and more anxious also explained some of their poorer math performance.

“Our study suggests that childhood obesity, especially obesity that persists throughout the elementary grades, can harm children’s social and emotional well-being and academic performance,” Gable says, whose findings are reported in the journal Child Development.

The study was supported by the United States Department of Agriculture. Researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of California, Los Angeles, assisted Gable with the study.

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