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Obesity in Children

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

One of the most worrying trends about the rising numbers of obese and overweight individuals is the rising number of children and adolescents that are obese and overweight.

Rise in obesity in children

Over the last few decades the number of children who are overweight or obese has doubled. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. The percentage of teenagers aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over these three decades as well.

There seems to be no halt in the progressive rise of this condition among children. In the United States, nearly one third of the child population is affected by obesity or overweight in 2010.

Childhood obesity is on the rise despite awareness campaigns and attention of the print media, school newsletters, and audiovisual media. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine released a report calling the prevention of childhood obesity a national priority.

Risk factors associated with childhood obesity

Risk factors associated with childhood obesity include:-

  • Increased sedentary habits with more time spent before the television and computer game
  • Lack of adequate physical activity
  • Excessive indulgence in fast foods and consumption of sugary and saturated fat rich foods
  • Lack of time on the part of working parents who are unable to cook nutritious meals or supervise outdoor playtime
  • Reduced intake of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Rise of urban and suburban crimes that keep children away from out of doors

Why does childhood obesity need to be combated?

Obesity itself is the cause for several health conditions including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, gall bladder and fatty liver disease, arthritis and some cancers.

Obesity raises the risk of hardening of the arteries, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep disorders and mental health problems as well. These are common findings among obese adults.

Among children the problem takes a two headed approach. The first one is affliction of children with many of these disease conditions like heart disease and diabetes. This raises the possibility of the children having to cope with chronic illnesses for an unusually extended time period, if they develop it so young.

This raises the possibility of long term complications. For example, diabetes leads to diabetic retinopathy and eye damage eventually. Children who develop diabetes are more likely to have their vision impaired due to the longer duration of the condition when compared with adults who develop diabetes.

The second part of the problem is that many of these disease conditions may be silent among obese children and manifest only when serious damage has been done. This considerably raises the risk of illness and a shorter lifespan.

Childhood obesity in addition also raises the overall health care costs mainly due to the first reason of longer illness durations. Estimates of the costs of treating obese children are rising rapidly.

Childhood obesity also raises the risk of developing several cancers including breast cancer, bowel cancer, womb or endometrial cancer, esophagus cancer, cancers of the gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, kidney, pancreas, prostate and blood cancers like multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Prevention of childhood obesity

  • Adoption of a healthy lifestyle with balanced and nutritious diet and increased physical activity.
  • Fostering a healthy lifestyle by families, communities, schools, child care settings etc. Support of the endeavours of preventing intake of fast foods and junk foods by the media, government agencies and the food and beverage industries and entertainment industries.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 8, 2013

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