Childhood Obesity – A Disturbing Trend

It’s a disturbing statistic. One out of five children in the United States is overweight or obese. The number of children who fall into the overweight or obese category has risen by almost 60% in a single generation, and the trend shows no sign of letting up. Obese children have an 80% chance of being obese as adults, and health problems that were once the domain of adults such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension are now increasingly common in children as a result of the obesity epidemic. How did our youth get to this point, and what can we do about it?

The Causes of Childhood Obesity
Most obesity in children is related to lifestyle factors. Genetic factors play a role in only about 10% of cases of childhood obesity. A variety of genetic disorders and hormone imbalances increase the risk of weight gain and obesity, and some medications make it more difficult for children to maintain a normal body weight. But these factors account for only a small number of cases of childhood obesity. Kids who have one or more obese parents are at higher risk for being overweight or obese themselves although they are not doomed to be obese if they lead a healthy lifestyle. Environment and lifestyle is the major factor in 90% of cases of obesity and stem from kids taking in more calories than they’re burning off.

Why are the youth of today more likely to be obese than children thirty years ago? According to the journal Pediatrics, a variety of lifestyle factors contribute to childhood obesity. Studies show that kids who skip breakfast, eat more meals outside the home, drink sugar-sweetened drinks, eat fewer fruits and vegetables and eat fewer meals with family are at higher risk for being overweight and obese.

But diet is only part of the equation. Kids today are less physically active today than they were before computer and video games became a popular form of entertainment. Children are more likely to watch television after school or sit in front of a computer rather than run and play outside where they can burn more calories. They’re also less likely to walk to school compared to kids of yesteryear. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids and teens get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. How many kids are getting that amount of exercise these days? Not enough.

What Can Parents Do to Help?
Parents need to realize that childhood obesity is not just a superficial problem. It increases the risk of serious chronic diseases and illnesses in kids. At one time, type 2 diabetes was a condition seen almost exclusively in adults, but it’s now increasingly common in children. The increase in incidence of type 2 diabetes has paralleled the rise in obesity among today’s youth.

Childhood obesity isn’t a problem parents should choose to ignore. An obese child is more likely to become an obese adult and have a higher risk of health concerns including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and an early mortality.  So what can parents do to help their kids avoid this fate?

Parents can play a more active role in ensuring their kids have access to healthy foods and that they start the day with a good breakfast. Studies clearly show that kids who eat a nutritious breakfast are less likely to be obese or overweight. Eating meals cooked at home and limiting restaurant and fast-food meals is another way to help kids develop healthy eating habits and ward off obesity. Parents can prepare meals that contain fruits and vegetables rather than serving a child processed or packaged foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition.

Parents can also get involved by encouraging kids to play sports and play outside rather than sit in front of the television after school. Kids can walk to school rather than take the bus, and parents can give them the task of walking the dog to keep them moving. Lastly, it’s important to lead by example. The more activities kids do with their parents, the more they learn the importance of physical activity. Staying active is good for the whole family.

References:
Medscape.com. “Obesity in Children”
Shapeup.org. “Preventing Childhood Obesity”

About Dr. Kristie

Dr. Kristie is a medical doctor with a concentration in family practice. She has an undergraduate degree in both Biology and Psychology, as well Master’s Degree in Clinical Pathology. She is a frequent contributor to the Angel Heart Foundation.

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