Obese Kids Have Lower Math Scores

Geek Culture

This photo defies reason like Superman defies bullets. But I include it here because it shows obese kids. And because it’s free. Image: Flickr/PaleoCrossfitOmnivoreLowCardNonVeganMeatDiet, cc license.

In June a study of 6,250 kids published in the journal Child Development found that obese children feel sadder, lonelier and more anxious and that these feelings largely explain obese children’s lower scores on math standardized tests.

But the patterns of these decreased scores are interesting and the questions they raise may be even more important than the findings.

Kids who participated in the study were followed from kindergarten through fifth grade and assigned the obesity categories persistent, later onset and never. The persistently obese kids – ones who were above the 95th percentile BMI from start to finish — had lower math scores starting in first grade and continuing through the end of the study (implying a social and not physical cause, because scores weren’t low in kindergarten).

But the effects of obesity on later onset kids were split by gender. Boys who developed obesity during the study retained their math scores. Girls who became obese during the study took a counter-intuitive U-shaped curve, with math scores declining as they were becoming obese in first through third grades, but then recovering in fifth grade once later onset girls were above the 95th percentile BMI. (Were girls more emotionally distressed while become obese than once they, in fact, reached obesity?)

Maybe more interesting than proving the fact of lower math test scores in obese children is wondering what can be done about it. For example, it’s unclear whether the moral of this study is that it would be best if no kids were obese or if it would be best if obese kids weren’t made to feel bad about themselves. Taking this finding at face value – that obesity causes distress and distress causes poor math test results – one should be able to break the chain of causation at either point, right?

Study authors also discuss the possible role of teacher bias in causing lower test scores in obese kids. Generally, teachers see kids as complicit in their own obesity and the potential exists that teachers’ subconscious negative expectations for and treatment of obese students are as detrimental as poor peer interactions in lowering scores.

Whatever the causes and solutions, the authors write that, “Much public health rhetoric concerning the costs of obesity focuses on life-course medical expenditures; an equally costly outcome concerns the human capital lost due to inter- and intrapersonal difficulties and the potential for less than optimal academic performance.”

It’s not only our obese children’s bodies that are at risk – it’s their brains, too.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!