Is there a causal relationship between a child's weight and their academic performance? It doesn't appear so, according to early findings from research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The study, published online Thursday, attempted to dig further into the relationship between a child's fat mass (separate from the standard body mass index measurement) and his or her academic performance.
Previous studies have found a potential link between childhood obesity and academic performance. One such study, published in the June issue of the journal Child Development, surmised that obesity can affect a child's social and emotional well-being, especially in the early years, which could negatively affect academic performance.
In this study, researcher Stephanie von Hinke Kessler Scholder of the U.K.-based University of York, examined data of 3,729 children born in the early 1990's from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.
"We sought to test whether obesity 'directly' hinders performance due to bullying or health problems, or whether kids who are obese do less well because of other factors that are associated with both obesity and lower exam results, such as coming from a disadvantaged family," Scholder explained in a statement.
Each child's body fat mass was gathered at age 11, and compared to the results of a national academic test that all English students take at age 14.
When not controlling any other variables, Scholder and her colleagues did discover an "inverse correlation, albeit a small one," between a child's fat mass at age 11 and how well they performed on the academic test at age 14.
The researchers weren't done there, though.
Scholder's team isolated two genetic traits that appear to cause children to be slightly more predisposed to obesity. After controlling for those two markers, "none of the estimates show[ed] significant effects of fat mass on educational performance," according to the study.
"Based on a simple correlation between children's obesity as measured by their fat mass and their exam results, we found that heavier children did do slightly worse in school," Scholder said. "But, when we used children's genetic markers to account for potentially other factors, we found no evidence that obesity causally affects exam results. So, we conclude that obesity is not a major factor affecting children's educational outcomes."
Instead, Scholder and her colleagues suggest that any previous research linking obesity to poor academic performance must be caused by other factors, such as socio-economic status.
The researchers encouraged "further research to move on to examine other modifiable risk factors for low educational attainment."
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