Children and health problems are two phrases that nobody likes seeing linked together. But in today’s world, one disease is rapidly being seen in more children than ever before: obesity. A child is classified as obese when their weight is way higher than the ideal weight for their height. To be clear, it is not necessary that a child weighing a few extra pounds or looking bigger than the standard size for their age means that the child is obese. Obesity in children is calculated using the BMI-for-age-percentiles.
According to WHO, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last 40 years. In 2020, 39 million children were classified as obese. The pandemic has also lent to the growing number of obese children. There is ongoing research to understand and treat childhood obesity better. For now, the verdict stands clear, prevention is better and it is a growing public health concern that needs to be addressed.
What causes childhood obesity
Diet: Poor diet is the biggest cause of childhood obesity. There has been an increase in fast food consumption in the last many years, and it is no surprise that it has led to a jump in childhood obesity. Fast food has low to no nutritional value and is very high in calories. Regular consumption of high-calorie foods, combined with lack of exercise can lead to severe weight gain.
Family history: Children whose parents are obese are more likely to be so. Genetic factors also sometimes determine a child’s likelihood to be obese. Some studies suggest that BMI is heritable to a large degree. But genetic factors do not mean that childhood obesity is a given, only that there is an increased risk. Genetic factors are solely responsible for just 5% of childhood obesity cases. If the family is aware of existing genetic factors, then they can help the child make certain lifestyle and dietary choices to lower the risk and prevent childhood obesity. Family habits also influence the child, whether the family is active or sedentary, what kind of food do they prefer to eat etc.
Socioeconomic reasons: Low socioeconomic status is considered a strong risk factor for developing childhood obesity. Childhood obesity rates are significantly lower in higher-income groups than lower-income groups. It is expensive to buy fresh produce and make other healthier choices. Junk food is cheap and easy.
Medication: Certain kinds of medication can increase the risk of developing obesity. For example, medication for asthma, immune system disorders, arthritis, depression, anxiety are related to weight gain.
There are many more causes being studied which researchers believe lend a heavy hand towards an increase in childhood obesity. What is clear is, there is a degree of control which we have over the increasing rate of obesity. That it is largely a result of individual lifestyle choices and some government policies which have failed to address the large consumption rates of junk food and inaccessibility to make healthier choices by many people.
Childhood obesity is a serious concern to the many consequences for the child. They are
Medical: Childhood obesity severely affects a child’s health. Obese children can suffer from type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, glucose intolerance, menstrual abnormalities, poor bone health, weakened immune system. Asthma is more common in children who are obese. Most medical consequences can be prevented if the child attains a healthy weight, but some can continue having a negative effect on their health. A new study has shown that obese children have a higher risk of suffering from cancer in their adulthood. This is because obese children are at risk of genomic instability, which increases the risk for cancer.
Psychological: Some studies suggest that obese children tend to have lower self-esteem. Not just low self-esteem, but other studies have come to the conclusion that childhood obesity can cause a host of other emotional problems which can affect the child’s life well into adulthood. This is further complicated if the child is female since girl children become hyper-aware of their bodies from childhood due to societal cues. Obese children are usually the victim of bullying because of their weight. A study found discrimination against obese children as young as 2 years old. These effects can continue into adulthood and be a barrier for the now adults in weight management.
Academic: Obese children are 4 times likely to have issues at school than normal-weight children. Obese children tend to miss more school, usually because of health conditions brought upon due to their obesity. As mentioned above, since obese children are more likely to be bullied, they are also more likely to skip school which has a direct impact on their learning and education scores.
The causes and consequences paint quite a grim picture. The child is not at fault here. Childhood obesity should be a concern because it impairs a child’s emotional and physical health and can continue to affect them even when they grow up. The attitude towards obesity should be to take it seriously for the right reasons and not aesthetic purposes. What can be done about this? Government policy can do a lot to help with this, which can then empower individuals to make better choices for their children.
For example, the UK Government has announced a new advertising rule which will restrict the promotion of unhealthy foods online and on television. Another study is being undertaken in the country which will help parents understand and deal with overeating in pre-school children. The study will go on for three years and hopefully will show us that the key to solving the issue of childhood obesity lies in treating it as a public health issue with solid government-backed policies.