Researchers and health organizations refer to obesity as a ‘major health crisis’. And this is indeed true, for obesity is not limited to adults. Childhood obesity can be defined as excess body weight for given height, age and gender of the child.
In this article we use the term ‘Childhood obesity’ to refer to it as a health condition and with no intentions of stigmatizing young minds.
CDC reports that approximately 17% or 12.7 million of children aged 2-19 years are obese. If you run a net search on ‘Childhood obesity’ you will get a great deal of detailed statistics on this topic and the figures are pretty alarming.
In 2011-2012, 8.4% of 2- to 5-year-olds had obesity compared with 17.7% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 20.5% of 12- to 19-year-olds.
In US, obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades and the country now has highest obesity rates in the world: 1 out of 6 children are obese. It is a general trend to ignore childhood obesity under the idea that he or she is just a healthy kid and they will be fine when they grow up. But that is not what studies say.
Eighty percent of overweight 10-14 year old adolescents are at risk of becoming overweight adults compared to 25% of overweight preschool children (< 5 years old) and 50% of 6-9 year old overweight children.
A review of 25 studies conducted all around the world also reported that overweight and obese youth are at significantly increased risk of being overweight adults.
So the need of the hour is to nip childhood obesity in the bud and what could be better than identifying causative factors in the first place.
Top Seven Alarming Causes of childhood obesity
Here is a list of causative factors for childhood obesity and you will be surprised to know that it is not the ‘big bones’ or ‘family genes’ that cause your child to be overweight.
1.Your child’s diet quality
Poor diet has been greatly linked to childhood obesity. Over the last few decades there has been a drastic shift in children’s food choices from healthy foods to energy dense refined foods.
Soft drinks or soda consumption has greatly increased in children. A 19 month study demonstrated that likelihood of obesity in children increased by 1.6 times for every additional soft drink consumed each day. The sugar content of these beverages makes them addictive and the amount consumed exceeds the daily limit for sugar. 30-50% of adolescents have 3 or more 8 ounce servings of soda a day.
Increased accessibility of fast food or snacks also contributes to childhood obesity. A fast food meal (burger, fries, soda and dessert) packs 2200 kcal and if you were to expend 50 calories every mile you run, then only a marathon could help you burn down this load.
Increased portion sizes, eating away from home, missing breakfasts, reduced energy intake at breakfasts and increased at dinner are few other factors involved.
Additionally the nutritional content of the diet also matters. An overall evaluation shows that children get a highly reduced percentage of nutrients than what has been recommended under Food Guide Pyramid and the quality of nutrients suffer.
For example fried potatoes account for almost half of daily vegetable servings for children. Food provided at school or child care facility should keep it in mind to provide nutritious food in compliance with the dietary regulations. Parents should also promote such habits.
What does this mean?
Children have easier access to high calorie foods such as sugar sweetened beverages and fast food. Poor nutritional quality and habits such as skipping breakfast or buying lunch from school cafeteria also tips the scale towards a positive energy balance.
2.Your child’s playtime
Physical activity plays an important role in obesity. Children who do not engage in regular physical activity are likely to be obese. 1 hour of daily physical activity is recommended. Only 48.9 % of boys and 34.7 % of girls aged 6–11 meet the physical activity guidelines.
Children spent most of their time in sedentary activities such as using a computer, watching TV, playing video games. Children snack more while watching television. Watching TV for more than 2 hours a day is associated with unfavourable changes in weight in children.
Physical activity in children does not reduce obesity alone but also reduces the risk of cardiac diseases and diabetes. It also improves mental health and well being. Physical inactivity in children continues in adulthood. Only 2% of inactive adolescents turn out to be active adults.
What does this mean?
Lack of physical activity and increased engagement in sedentary behaviours heavily contribute to childhood obesity. Physical inactivity in childhood is carried on in adult lifestyle and apart from obesity, physical inactivity increase risk of metabolic diseases.
3.The environment your child grows up in
Socio-environmental factors are factors at various settings like home, school and community that influence children’s eating habits and physical activity.
Parent-child interaction is very crucial to a child’s development. For example researchers believe that increased parental control over eating habits can result in poor self regulation of child’s energy intake.
Parental food preferences directly shape their children’s food choices. A study showed that in comparison to those who eat lesser than 3 meals per week, adolescents who ate 4-5 family meals a week were 19% less likely to report poor consumption of vegetables and dairy, and 22% less likely to report poor consumption of fruits.
For many children eating is a social event and children tend to mimic food preferences of other adults and siblings. Studies show that children who grow up in a single parent family are more likely to be overweight than children in two parent families and women working outside home coincides with increase in child’s weight problems.
Since children spend most time at school, school can promote healthy food choices and physical activity in children. In school environments such as availability of courts, nets fields and well supervised physical education classes can contribute to physical activity in middle schools.
Child care facilities should also be monitored for encouraging healthy eating and physical activity.
Experts feel that physical environment is an important driving factor for rise of obesity. Lack of safe outdoor recreation space, neighbourhood crime, unavailability of public transport are a few factors that inhibit children from having a safe environment outside.
Children spend a good deal of time travelling to and from school and this time and route can be utilised for daily physical activity.
Lack of street lighting, lack of safe bike paths and busy traffic can impede children from biking or walking to school which otherwise could have contributed to daily physical activity. Availability of fast food joints in the neighbourhood or snack vending machines at school can also add to the burden of obesity.
Socio-economic status is found to be negatively associated with being overweight or obese in children, however it varies upon race/ethnicity. Factors involved could be less healthy eating patterns, less physical activities and cultural perceptions about body weight and image.
What does this mean?
Social environment perhaps dictates the possibility of being overweight. Parental influences on eating habits take the first place followed by environment at school and neighbourhood. Socio-economic status is also correlated with developing obesity and the trend varies depending upon ethnicity.
4.The enticing food advertisements
There is a considerable debate on the link between food promotion and children’s eating habits. Food advertisements influence children’s food choices and shift it towards fast food, sugary cereals or foods high in calories, trans fat, sugar, sodium etc.
The link between watching TV and obesity has been established and every additional hour spent watching TV increases obesity by 2%. Children of the age group 2-11 years watch on an average 3 hours of TV each day and see about 5500 food ads in a year.
A study conducted by Dr Connors monitored the kind of advertisements on children’s TV channels. In the 9am to 1 pm slot, 130 food related ads were presented.
Half of these were aimed at children and most of them were fast food or sugary cereals. Fast food restaurants include toys in their meals which children are eager to collect.
40% of the children ask their parents to take them to fast food restaurants on a daily basis.
However the food provided is not in line with dietary recommendations for kids. Children are more likely to consume foods that were depicted in food advertisements as fun and with taste appeal.
It is also observed that the foods which are requested by most of the children during shopping at the supermarket are foods that are high in fat and sugar.
What does this mean?
Food industry advertisers are looking for early brand recognition in children by equating food with happiness, fun and appealing taste. This shifts children’s choices towards food rich in trans fat and sugar which contributes to childhood obesity.
5.The usual victim of blame game: Genetics
When nothing seems to work, we easily blame our genes for every possible condition. Over 250 genes related to obesity have been identified. However these genes alone are not responsible with obesity.
Their interaction with the environment however can cause obesity. Genes can affect metabolism, appetite, body type, food preferences etc.
Cases of genetically related obesity do exist but affect a very small population. Around 6 genetic defects have been identified and interestingly they affect fewer than 150 people. Heredity of such genes has a varying influence on the risk of developing obesity.
Studies suggest that 50-75% an individual’s body weight and degree of fatness is influenced by genes. If both parents are obese, then there s a 75% chance that the child will be overweight and 25-50% chance if one parent is overweight.
What does this mean?
Obesity related genetic defects affect a small number of people and studies suggest that hereditary does increase the likelihood of child being obese.
But genes alone do not predispose one towards developing obesity; it is their interaction with environmental factors that matters.
6.Underlying Medical Conditions that your child might be suffering from
Childhood obesity can also be a result of underlying medical conditions. Few of the genetic syndromes involved are:
- Prader Willi syndrome
- Bardet Biedl syndrome
- Down syndrome
- Turner syndrome
Metabolic disorders that are linked with childhood obesity are:
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Growth hormone deficiency
- Precocious puberty
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
Certain medications like antidepressants, sulfonylureas, cortisol or glucocorticoids etc can also contribute to weight gain.
What does this mean?
Childhood obesity could occur as a consequence of certain medical conditions and for this treating the medical condition is necessary in order to keep the weight in control.
7.The factors that you ignore
Psychological factors influence a child’s eating habits. Children tend to binge eat or overeat in order to combat stress and depression.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has also been linked with obesity. Researchers discovered that decreased self esteem led to 19% of obese children feeling sad, 48% of them feeling bored, and 21% of them feeling nervous.
In comparison, 8% of normal weight children felt sad, 42% of them felt bored, and 12% of them felt nervous.
Adequate sleep is essential for a healthy lifestyle. The risk for obesity is nearly three times higher for children who sleep less than eight hours per night. Use of technology such as TV and cell phones also affect sleep duration and increase stress and anxiety.
Breast feeding is said to be protective against obesity. Study states that breastfeeding may encourage healthier eating habits since breastfed babies may eat until satiated while bottle fed babies are encouraged to eat till formula feed is finished.
What does this means?
Even factors such as sleep duration, mental well being, breastfeeding at infancy, which we ignore can contribute to the likelihood of child being overweight.
Why is monitoring or rather preventing childhood obesity so important?
Just as in adults, obesity in children is a gateway to a number of medical conditions such as:
- Cardiovascular problems
- Metabolic diseases like diabetes and insulin resistance
- Joint problems
- Fatty liver disease, gallstones, heartburn
- Breathing problems like sleep apnea and asthma
- Skin conditions and menstrual abnormalities
- Psychological problems like low self esteem, depression
These medical conditions can further affect academic performance and also lead to emotional consequences. Children are way too sensitive and fragile to deal with any of these conditions and it is our duty to protect them from the same.
If you observe maximum of the causative factors for childhood obesity are external or from the environment and this makes the problem solvable. Efforts from parents and family followed by support from school environment can definitely reduce the burden of obesity in children.
Just as we protect children from infection by providing a hygienic environment or secure their future financially, in the same way we can protect them from obesity by providing healthy food, adequate portions and good eating habits.