CHILDREN who are heavier than their peers at ages four and five are more likely to struggle socially several years later, according to a new study.
Researchers followed more than 3,300 children for about four years and found that heavy children were up to 20pc more likely at age eight or nine to have social difficulties and emotional problems.
"The quality of peer relationships during this period of time has the potential to have a significant impact on children's later mental health," professor Michael Sawyer said.
For the study, researchers surveyed parents in Australia when their children were four, and again four years later.
Questions involved measures of children's mental health such as hyperactivity and social skills. Children also had their weight and height checked.
At ages four and five, 222 boys (13pc) and 264 girls (16pc) were determined to be overweight, while 77 boys (4.5pc) and 87 girls (5.2pc) were obese.
Those children with a body mass index at least 1.6 points greater than their peers were more at risk of having social problems, including isolation or teasing, later on.
At ages eight and nine, the heavier children were 15pc more likely to receive an evaluation of "concerning," based on teachers' and parents' responses about social interactions.
The heavy children were also 20pc more likely to get a "concerning" score from teachers on emotional development.
"It's interesting that we're seeing these problems at an early age," said Christina Calamaro, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.
"I think this speaks to the fact that health care providers need to take weight into consideration at an earlier age, so we can cut it off at the pass before they hit middle school."
The study authors wrote that the stigma of being overweight can translate into social struggles for these children, and the children might withdraw themselves from social activities because they fear teasing. Obese children are also more likely to be bullied.