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Fat Kids Have Fewer Friends, Study Suggests

New researcher finds that not only are overweight kids ostracized, they are actively disliked.

The truffle shuffle may not be enough for modern Chunks to find their Goonies, according to a new study in PLOS One. Researchers surveyed more than 700 preteens in the Netherlands, and found that average-weight children were less likely to befriend overweight kids, and more likely to report actively disliking them.

“We’ve known for a long time that obesity is stigmatized,” coauthor on the study Kayla de la Haye of University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine told Fatherly. Haye explains that the data suggests stigma translates into concrete behaviors on the part of non-overweight individuals. “Part of that is an unwillingness to have close social connections to people that are overweight because we hold these incorrect views that ‘overweight’ means something about them,” she says.

Haye and colleagues looked at survey data collected from more than 700 10- to 12-year-old children attending a school in the Netherlands. Children were asked who, from within their school community, they considered a friend and who they explicitly disliked. The results allowed researchers to map out social networks in this tightly controlled population.

When that network was combined with weight information for each individual child, a stark pattern emerged. Not only were overweight children ostracized from their school community, they were also distinctly not liked. “I wasn’t expecting that the overweight children would be disliked to the extent that they were,” Haye explains. “This is really not a nice peer context for these kids. They’re excluded, they’re overtly rejected by their classmates.”

But a fairly obvious cultural question arises when looking at the study. Given that the children surveyed were Dutch, is appropriate to suggest the friendship trends would be similar for children in other cultures? “Across many cultures and countries it is really overwhelming how consistently we see this pattern of overweight kids being…more on the periphery of these social groups,” Haye says. “My hypothesis would be that it would be very consistent in other studies in other countries.”

Haye suspects there may be a vicious cycle at play—kids are ostracized due to their weight, and this leads to more weight gain and, in turn more ostracism. For instance, if several overweight kids are rejected by average-weight kids, this can create peer groups of overweight kids who are, as a group, less likely to choose healthy foods and activities. Not only that, the psychological effects of ostracization have been shown to promote increased consumption. Hayes adds that recent epigenetic studies have suggested that social isolation itself can impact weight gain. Together, these factors create major barriers for fighting obesity.

One solution, Haye says, is shifting the conversation about childhood obesity away from stigma. “There’s just no evidence that stigmatizing obesity does anything to help people who are overweight,” she says. Hayes adds that parents have an important responsibility to teach children that health issues are not personality flaws. “It’s not because people make bad choices, but because it’s really hard to be healthy sometimes,” Haye explains. Teaching kids to be supportive of overweight peers could be key.

Which means we need more Goonies out there—accepting of all, regardless of weight, and ready for adventure. Albeit with fewer calls for the Chunks to do the truffle shuffle.