Obesity carries with it many health risks, such as cardiovascular disease, prediabetes and many types of cancer. But now, a new study has found a link between obesity in adolescent girls and lower academic levels throughout their teens.

The researchers, from various universities in the UK, have published the results of their study in the International Journal of Obesity, and they say theirs is the first comprehensive study to look into the association between obesity and academics in teens.

Though the association was less clear in boys, the team says for teenage girls, the link was clear.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2012, over one third of children and adolescents in the US were overweight or obese, which is the result of a “caloric imbalance” and is affected by genetic, behavioral and environmental factors.

Prof. John Reilly, principal investigator and professor at the University of Strathclyde in the UK, says:

“Further work is needed to understand why obesity is negatively related to academic attainment, but it is clear that teenagers, parents and policymakers in education and public health should be aware of the lifelong educational and economic impact of obesity.”

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The researchers found a clear link between obesity in teenage girls and lower academic performance.

To conduct their study, the team assessed data from nearly 6,000 children who were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

This included information on weight status and academic attainment, as determined by national tests at the ages of 11, 13 and 16 years old.

Of the adolescents, 71.4% were of a healthy weight (1,935 males, 2,325 females), 13.3% were overweight (372 males, 420 females) and 15.3% were obese (448 males, 466 females).

Overall, the results revealed that girls who were obese at age 11 had lower academic achievement at ages 11, 13 and 16 years, compared with those of a healthy weight.

Additionally, in the core subjects of English, math and science, academic performance was lower by a grade equivalent to a D instead of a C, which the researchers say was the sample’s average.

Fast facts about teen obesity

  • In the US, childhood obesity has more than quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years.
  • Obese youths have a higher risk for bone and joint problems, cardiovascular disease and prediabetes.
  • Adolescents who are obese are most likely to be obese adults, putting them at risk for further problems.

Even after taking into account factors that could distort their findings, such as socio-economic status, mental health, IQ and age of onset of the menstrual cycle, the researchers found they did not change the link between obesity and academic achievement.

“There is a clear pattern which shows that girls who are in the obese range are performing more poorly than their counterparts in the healthy weight range throughout their teenage years,” says Dr. Josie Booth, of the University of Dundee.

The team notes that because mental health, IQ and age of onset of the menstrual cycle did not affect the link they found, “further work is required to understand the underlying mechanisms.”

They also say the education system should consider “the wide-reaching detrimental impact of obesity on educational outcomes in this age group.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested being overweight or obese is a risk factor for ovarian cancer.