The findings will be presented today at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) being held in Glasgow.
The analysis of a nationally representative sample of more than 17,000 children in the UK finds that regardless of their socioeconomic status, girls and boys with obesity at age seven were at greater risk of emotional problems at age 11, which in turn, predicted high body mass index (BMI) at 14 years of age.
While the study did not investigate the reasons why obesity and emotional problems develop together during childhood, the researchers say that a range of factors are likely to be involved.
Dr Charlotte Hardman from the University of Liverpool, who co-led the study said: “Children with higher BMI may experience weight-related discrimination and poor self-esteem, which could contribute to increased depressive symptoms over time, while depression may lead to obesity through increased emotional eating of high-calorie comfort foods, poor sleep patterns, and lethargy.
“Our findings highlight the importance of early interventions that target both weight and mental health and minimise negative outcomes later in childhood.”
The researchers say adolescence is a key developmental period for both obesity and emotional problems.
But how they relate to each other over time is unclear, and little research has focused on the onset and co-occurrence of these disorders through childhood and adolescence.
Lower socioeconomic status is strongly associated with both obesity and poor mental health, but it is unknown whether the association between these two health outcomes is merely a function of shared socioeconomic disadvantage.
In the study, researchers used statistical modelling to assess associations between obesity and emotional problems in 17,215 children born in the UK between 2000 and 2002, who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study – a nationally representative, UK birth cohort study of more than 19,000 individuals born at the start of the millennium.
Information on children’s height and weight (BMI) were collected at ages 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 years, and parents filled in a questionnaire on their children’s emotional problems such as feelings of low mood and anxiety.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Tackling obesity is a priority for this Government. It can affect our health, and our ability to lead happy and fulfilling lives.”