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Obesity is a major health problem for children in the United States: In the past two decades, the number of children who are obese has doubled, and the number of adolescents who are obese has tripled, according the American Academy of Pediatrics. Although parents can influence their children's eating habits, studies show that friendship plays an important role in their eating behavior.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York observed 23 overweight and 42 "nonoverweight" children who were given the opportunity to play and eat with a friend or with a peer they didn't know. The results of the study showed that the overweight children who ate with their overweight friends consumed more food than when they were with thinner children or children who weren't their friends. "People around you establish a norm of what is appropriate to do," says Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Salvy, a researcher who worked on the study. In this case, the overweight children ate more because their friends influenced them to increase their food intake, she says. "So, if I'm overweight, I'm already eating more and the norm of how much is appropriate to me is pushed upward," she says.
Dr. Salvy says the study's results reflect a child's need to feel accepted by other children. "Kids start comparing themselves to others at a really early age," she says. "Although family has a huge impact on food and making foods available, kids are spending a lot of time with their friends, peers at school and on sports teams. The more they age, the more friends and peers have a bigger influence."
Should you let your overweight child interact with other overweight children?