Health Spain , Salamanca, Wednesday, March 18 of 2015, 17:35

Weight problems in young people influence their mood, their self-esteem, and the support they perceive

The Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca is researching factors related to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia

José Pichel Andrés/DICYT Overweight or obese teenagers are in significantly lower spirits and have much lower self-esteem that those of normal weight. Moreover, they perceive much less social support according to research by the Psychology Faculty of the Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca (UPSA).


The study was carried out in 2014 with 92 young people aged between 15 and 22 from high schools in Salamanca, although most of them were 16 or 17 years old. 7.6% of them were obese and 21.7% were overweight, i.e. almost a third had some kind of weight problem. The results were presented at a specialised conference and are very clear: “As weight increases self-esteem decreases, depression symptoms increase, and the social support these students perceive decreases”, María Ángeles Gómez, the UPSA researcher directing this study together with Gloria Fernández, said in her explanations to DiCYT.


The research links high figures of Body Mass Index (BMI), which relates a person's mass and height, to psychological and social disturbances and found no significant differences between the sexes. “The lower the weight, the higher the self-esteem, and this is dangerous for teenagers as it may result in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia”, the specialist points out.


As they are part of a society that idealises slimness, it is very probable that these vulnerable young people pin their hopes on diets that promise miracles but which are in fact dangerous to health.


Another curious piece of data is that teenagers whose weight is below normal, which in this study were 19.6% of the total, have levels of self-esteem and social acceptance that are similar to those of normal weight, which was a paradox to the experts. “One might well think that some underweight people could be developing an eating disorder. However, they have a high level of self-esteem”, the lecturer points out.


This aspect may be related to the social support perceived by the young people. Those whose weight corresponds to their height and even those who are too thin show no problems in this respect, while those who are overweight or obese declare that they feel lonely, are made fun off, or have no close friends in their immediate surroundings, among other replies. In short, symptoms of depression exist that are directly related to weight.


Possible connection with bullying


Having obtained these data, the researchers now propose a new study on younger people taking a new factor into account. “We think that overweight young people may be bullied more”, María Ángeles Gómez. In order to test this hypothesis, in the forthcoming months she and her colleagues will study a hundred students from the 5th and 6th grade of primary school and the 1st grade of Spanish Compulsory Secondary Education (Educación Segundaria Obligatoria, ESO), i.e. between the ages of 10 and 12 approximately.


This will provide continuation to a line of research that has contributed a great deal of information on psychological and social aspects related to physical appearance in recent years. For example, a previous study on teenagers found that the distortion of one's body image increases during periods of stress, to be precise during exams. In this case being a woman and being aged 18 were shown to be two key factors for stress to affect this self-perception.


Developing new strategies


Experts are also thinking of how to use these results to find solutions, taking into account that for years eating disorder prevention campaigns informed young people of the dangers of anorexia and bulimia and that this approach has not been successful. “If strategies to handle and improve self-esteem and the body image are not included, we will be doomed to failure”, the researcher of the Psychology Faculty declares.


In her opinion, the data from this research should serve to make society as a whole reflect on the values that are being inculcated in young people either consciously or unconsciously. “It is important to distinguish between a health concern and an aesthetic concern”, she comments, as pressure often comes from the families themselves who try to prevent their children from becoming overweight and may be conditioning their behaviour without realising it. Indeed, contrary to what might be expected, young people with these problems are the most concerned about their weight and often resort to restrictive diets.


“Some of these teenagers will have health problems owing to their physical condition", warns María Ángeles Gómez, "but in addition there will be psychological and social problems" if these are not addressed in time.