A recent longitudinal study led by UCL researchers reveals a connection between body dissatisfaction at age 11 and an elevated risk of depression by age 14. The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry and supported by Wellcome, focused on 13,135 participants from the Millennium Cohort Study—a nationally representative birth cohort study spanning those born between 2000 and 2002.

The findings indicate that concerns about body image significantly contribute to the link between body mass index (BMI) and depression in children, particularly in girls. High BMI at age seven is associated with increased depressive symptoms by age 14, along with greater body dissatisfaction at age 11. Notably, body dissatisfaction explains 43% of the association between BMI at age seven and subsequent depressive symptoms.

The study highlights that all three associations are more pronounced in girls compared to boys. Lead author Dr. Francesca Solmi emphasizes the need for a nuanced approach to childhood weight management, considering potential mental health impacts and avoiding stigmatization. The study did not explore other factors contributing to the association between high BMI and depressive symptoms but suggests biological (e.g., inflammation) or environmental (e.g., bullying) pathways could play a role.

Emma Blundell, the first author and a trainee clinical psychologist at UCL Psychology & Language Sciences, raises concerns about public health strategies that may inadvertently foster feelings of guilt or shame. While promoting healthy diet and exercise is essential, interventions should prioritize not increasing body dissatisfaction and harming children’s mental health.

The researchers propose that targeting body image concerns in early adolescence may prevent depression, especially in girls, and suggest exploring interventions like psychological approaches or media literacy training. They emphasize the importance of further research to effectively address body image concerns in young people. The collaborative study involved researchers from UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, MRC Unit for Lifelong Health & Ageing at UCL, and Imperial College London. The Millennium Cohort Study is based at the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies in the IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society.

 

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