At least three in four obese teens grow up to become obese adults, which predispose them to serious ailments such as degenerative arthritis, heart disease, stroke and several forms of cancer. Although these illnesses usually don’t strike until much later in life, other medical problems can emerge during the teen years for youngsters who are morbidly obese:
- hypercholesterolemia and hypertriglyceridemia
- skin infections, from fungi trapped in folds of skin and hard-to-clean areas, and bacteria
- pseudogynecomastia, in which excess fatty tissue gives boys the appearance of breasts
- back pain
- pain in the knee, hip or thigh from slipped capital femoral epiphysis
- ankle fracture
- chronically high blood pressure (hypertension), a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and kidney disease
- inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- excessive insulin secretion (hyperinsulinism)
- insulin resistance, diabetes
- obstructive sleep apnea, a blockage of the upper airway that disrupts normal breathing during sleep
Even a moderate, sustained weight loss of approximately 10 percent can return elevated levels of blood pressure, insulin and blood sugar to normal, and all but eliminate the threat of gallstones, pancreatitis and the other conditions listed above.
However, the emotional damage accruing to being overweight in adolescence can be considerable and long lasting. To be sure, plenty of heavy set teenagers rank high in popularity with their peers. But in our thin-obsessed culture, the social stigma associated with obesity is too deeply ingrained for many large boys and girls to escape.
“It starts long before adolescence,” says Dr. Garry Sigman, director of the division of adolescent medicine at Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. “Studies show that children as young as age five begin to consider an overweight person as somehow ‘bad’ or less desirable than someone who’s thinner, based on the derogatory images and messages they’ve received.” The pervasive societal prejudice against heavy people has been called one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry; in fact, several studies have shown striking similarities between the psychological characteristics of obese teenage girls and victims of racism. Taunts and ridicule, feeling excluded from the social whirl of junior high and high school, inevitably leave their mark. “One of the normal developmental tasks of adolescence is to become comfortable with your body and your self-identity,” explains Dr. Sigman. Overweight youngsters are more likely to have a negative body image and low self-esteem, which may make them withdraw socially and possibly turn more than ever to food as a source of comfort. Parents should be aware that they are also prone to anxiety and depression.