Julie C. Lumeng

Updated:Feb 12,2013

Julie C. Lumeng, M.D.

Julie C LumengChildhood obesity and behavioral problems linked

Researchers have found a clear link between childhood obesity and behavior problems.  Julie C. Lumeng, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development and Department of Pediatrics, led a study that shows children who have significant behavior problems, as described by their parents, are nearly three times as likely to be overweight as other children.  Children with behavior problems are also as much as five times more likely to become overweight later, regardless of socioeconomic status.

The study used data collected from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which sends interviewers to participants’ homes on a regular basis over many years. Because they used this data source, Lumeng and her colleagues feel they have compiled the largest and most comprehensive study of children’s behavior and weight to date.

The children in the study were classified as overweight if their body mass index (BMI) was at or above the 95th percentile for age and gender. Children were described as having behavior problems only if they were in the 90th percentile or above nationally on the Behavior Problems Index, a standardized behavior rating scale completed by their mothers.

Lumeng stresses that the majority of overweight children in the study did not have significant behavior problems – only that there was a strong correlation between the two. Twenty-one percent of the children with behavior problems were overweight, as opposed to 11 percent of the children without behavior problems. 

But with one in five American children between ages 6-11 years now considered overweight, and an increasing awareness that childhood behavioral problems are a predictor of adult mental health issues, Lumeng said, “the finding should be a wake-up call to parents, teachers and physicians.”

With knowledge of the link between behavioral problems and overweight, the next challenge is to understand what’s going on.  Researchers are currently exploring how brain chemistry, sleep habits and cultural and home environments affect behavior and learning.  Meanwhile, social research is looking at how stigmas or lifestyle changes from being overweight, or from having a diagnosed or undiagnosed behavioral issue, affect children.

“For example,” Lumeng said, “children who are depressed are often less active, or may console themselves with food, which may set them up for weight gain. And overweight children may develop anxieties or social interaction problems because of self-consciousness or teasing about their weight. But only further research will show for sure.”

Lumeng and her colleagues have also embarked on another study looking at national data on the height and weight of children in child care over time, to see if there are any positive or negative correlations with care outside the home.

The findings were funded through Lumeng’s AHA National Center Fellow-to-Faculty Transition Award, and by the Joel and Barbara Alpert Endowment for Children of the City.  Lumeng began the study at the Boston University School of Public Health, where she completed her fellowship training.