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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Although the number of overweight children is rising, a U.S. study has found that obese children in grades 3 through 6 are still more likely to be bullied by thinner classmates even if they are popular or smart.
Researchers from the University of Michigan found that obese children are picked on more, regardless of gender, race, social skills, or academic achievement.
Dr. Julie C. Lumeng, who led the study, said she found the study slightly surprising and "disturbing."
"Unlike in the 1980s so many kids are obese now. In some schools, half the class may be overweight ... so I really thought that maybe being obese really doesn't result in being bullied as much anymore. I was wrong," she told Reuters Health.
The study involved 821 American boys and girls aged 8 to 11. In third grade, 17 percent of the children were obese and 15 percent were overweight.
A quarter of the children reported being bullied, although their mothers said about 45 percent of them were bullied.
According to the researchers, the odds of being bullied were 63 percent higher for an obese child compared to a healthy-weight peer.
They found that the higher odds of being bullied among obese children were "equally strong" for boys and girls, white and non-white children, children from poor and more well-to-do families and across all types of schools in all 10 study cities.
Lumeng also thought she'd find protective factors, like having good social skills and doing well in school.
"I thought maybe this would protect obese kids from being bullied. But no matter how we ran and re-ran the analysis, the link between being obese and being bullied remained," Lumeng said.
"Parents of obese children rate bullying as their top health concern," Lumeng and her colleagues note in their report published in Pediatrics.
Obese children who are bullied also suffer more depression, anxiety and loneliness. "There is no simple solution to the problem," Lumeng told Reuters Health. "I think it reflects the general prejudice against obese people," and children, even at a very young age, pick up on this.
Lumeng said she was also concerned about the "pervasive view" that obesity is all about a lack of self-control with food and not getting enough exercise.
"It's so much more complex than that and we really need to work on changing this view of what causes obesity."
Reporting by Megan Brooks, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith