By: Michelle Amundson, FNP-BC, RNFA
Obesity in children is increasing at an astounding rate throughout the world. Childhood obesity within the United States has risen to epidemic proportions. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. As a direct result of this, our youth is at an increased risk for an abundance of health issues in the near and far off future.
What causes childhood obesity?
Obesity is defined as having an excess of body fat. Obesity is affected by various genetic, environmental and behavioral factors, thus it is multi-factorial. Certain ethnic groups have been found to be more prone to obesity. These ethnic groups have a famine-resistant gene that allowed their ancestors to survive when food was in short supply. These genes that were once the difference between life and death have become a liability in a time where food is plentiful and exercise is not required. The environment we live in plays a great role in how we go about living. Unlike in the environment of our ancestors, food is plentiful. Whenever we are hungry we have a variety of food choices and exercise is optional. The leading cause of obesity is a caloric imbalance, in which more calories are consumed than are used by the body. The nutrient value of food has decreased over time as portion sizes have increased as well as the fat, sugar and calories per serving. Children are particularly vulnerable to their environment because they have less ability to shape it. They have little control over how they get around and what they are given to eat. Healthy food is available but not always obtainable for all people. Children tend to have similar eating habits and physical activity patterns as their parents. This is an environmental, rather than genetic, reason why obesity often runs in families. As children nowadays spend more and more time in front of a television or computer screen, they lose the opportunity for physical activity. On top of eating unhealthy food, a caloric imbalance is created that directly results in weight gain and obesity.
What are the consequences of childhood obesity?
The lasting effects of childhood obesity have mental, physical and economic aspects. Obese children often have a low self-esteem as a result of the criticism of others and themselves due to the standard set by society. This leads to the development of depression that may result in increased eating or overcompensation which can lead to the development of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Obese children are at risk for both long-term and short-term health issues. Obese children are 70 percent more likely to continue being affected by obesity in adulthood. Obese children, just like obese adults, are at an increased risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, prediabetes, joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort, fatty liver disease, gallstones, and gastro-esophageal reflux.
How can we reduce and prevent childhood obesity?
We can only change our behavior. We as parents must set a good example for our children and help guide and teach them to make good food choices and be physically active. Children learn what they live. They model their behaviors after our behaviors. We need to supply our children with good food choices. We must set a good example of eating when physically hungry, avoid emotionally eating and avoid using food as a reward. We must balance our calories in with calories burned through exercise. Involve the whole family in making healthy eating and exercise.