Childhood Obesity & Its Prevention & Risks

By Dr. Pradeep Chowbey in Bariatric Surgery / Metabolic

May 05 , 2016 | 5 min read

Obesity is no longer just another lifestyle disease; it has become an epidemic and is one of the leading contributors to the global disease burden. Bolstered by unhealthy lifestyle habits, youngsters are becoming the biggest victims resulting in a rising incidence of juvenile obesity.

Obesity has become a worldwide condition with India being the 3rd most obese country in the world. In our country, from the day a child is born, health parameters are set by the family. A heavy and chubby child is often considered to be healthy ignoring the fact that overweight infants can turn into obese adults.

According to the latest report by the WHO, the number of overweight, obese infants and young children between 0-5 years has increased from 32 million globally in 1990 to 41 million in 2016. If this trend continues, the number of overweight or obese infants and young children globally will increase to 70 million by 2025.

One hundred twenty-four million children and adolescents (aged between 5-19 years) are obese – a tenfold increase in the last four decades. It is these statistics that ring alarm bells. The major concern is that almost 80% of these obese children grow up to be obese adults.

Parents need to understand that excessive fat content in the body is absolutely unhealthy. Increasing evidence shows several school kids are becoming a victim of this epidemic with the problem being witnessed among adults aged between 18 and 25.

It is not difficult to control overweight issues in young kids through lifestyle changes, however, in some cases, these modifications may not work and medical recommendation is required. The success metrics of medicines for people who are moderately and morbidly obese are significantly low.

Sedentary lifestyles, junk foods, and alcohol consumption are pushing kids towards self-destruction. A healthy balanced diet has been replaced by junk foods disowning the fact that the latter contains high amounts of fats that are dangerous for their bodies. Doctors suggest it is best to control obesity at a young age by starting off with a healthier eating pattern so that it becomes easy to attain a healthy weight for years to come.

Once they begin to eat solid foods, it is best to provide them with healthy choices in appropriate portion sizes. A quality mealtime at both school and home teach children to eat independently and inculcate a healthy behavior of eating until full and then stopping.

Letting little ones eat on their own even if it is messy allows them to understand their hunger cues and learn about how much to eat. It is usually noticed that people visit doctors only when it is too late or they have been consistently putting on weight without much change in lifestyle, then it is time to go for a detailed check-up even when the person looks lean.

Fundamental causes

Due to improved economic status, urbanization has led to readily available means of transport, cutting physical activity to almost zero. Additionally, high-calorie processed foods are easily available, have little/ no nutrient value, and contribute significantly to weight gain. This causes a caloric imbalance due to high intake and almost no burning of calories, which gradually leads to the state of overweight and obesity.

Another important, underrated factor is poor sleep pattern, which directly impacts metabolism. Sleeping at late hours increases the chances of late-night binging, and as the metabolism rate reduces when we sleep, it significantly increases the risk of obesity.

How do you define if your child is overweight/ obese?

Body Mass Index is the most accepted and accurate indicator of obesity. BMI is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters. BMI between 18.5- 25 is considered normal, BMI between 25-30 is considered overweight, and BMI more than 30 is considered obese.

Impact of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity has long-term and immediate effects on physical health, mental health, and overall well-being.

Immediate adverse health effects:

  1. Obese children may develop high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

  2. Obese adolescents have very high chances of developing Type 2 diabetes. Most of them are pre-diabetic, a condition where blood glucose levels show a risk for the development of diabetes.

  3. Obese adolescents and children risk bone & joint problems and sleeping disorders like apnoea.

  4. Obese kids are often teased and bullied by their peers, leading to low self-esteem, depression, and other psychological problems. This inevitably affects their confidence, and are often seen withdrawing themselves from their social circle.

  5. Being overweight can also cause shortness of breath and discomfort while walking for long distances/ climbing. This proves to be a major discouraging factor for the kids to exercise, causing a vicious circle.

  6. Obese girls have been reported with a high incidence of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which causes delayed or irregular periods and hormonal changes, which may lead to infertility issues.

Long-term adverse health effects:

  1. Considering that 80 % of obese children grow up into obese adults thus, they are more at risk for health problems such as heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders, infertility issues, stroke, cancer, and osteoarthritis.

Finding a way out

  1. Parents and school authorities play a critical role in preventing obesity setting in the early years of childhood. School authorities must be sensitized about body mass index and make its monitoring mandatory for all school children above five years of age at regular intervals.

  2. Healthy lifestyle habits need to be taught right from the beginning in a family setting. Food habits must be altered for the entire household, and parents must set an example for their children. Replace their favorite junk food with healthy recipes at home.

  3. Reduce sedentary time- The role of physical activity and sports should be emphasized, and a set-up should be provided for outdoor games in schools or neighborhoods. Parents should encourage kids to reduce their television or internet use and spend more quality time interacting with them.

Preventing Childhood Obesity Through Physical Exercise

  1. Encouraging toddlers and preschoolers to engage in active play at home, daycare, or preschool. Parents and child care providers should make efforts to minimize sedentary time by limiting the use of swings, strollers, and bouncy seats. Basically, there is a need to ensure a child-proofed area where he can play freely, letting him walk more on his own power instead of pushing using a stroller.
  2. Exercise is important for babies too: Give tummy time for non-crawlers, and boost confidence in older babies and toddlers to crawl, cruise, walk, and climb.
  3. Communities should also work towards creating a safe and active place for small children that includes playground equipment, and safe sidewalks for families to enjoy the outdoors together.

At present, several people undergoing bariatric surgery are middle-aged but since childhood obesity is increasing manifolds, there are chances that children can develop diseases like diabetes, hypertension, infertility, and breast cancer at a young age.

With WHO terming it as an ‘exploding nightmare’, childhood obesity is a serious challenge that needs to be tackled intelligently and sensitively before it spirals out of control.

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