Childhood Obesity: Causes, Risks and Prevention

Obesity in Children

Children’s growth rate varies at different times during their development which makes it difficult to tell if they are overweight. Parents often end up overfeeding their children out of affection and fail to notice that their toddler, who was once chubby and adorable, hasn’t lost his baby fat and is growing up obese. The extra fat puts them at the risk of serious health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma. Obese children also have trouble keeping up with their peers in sports and activities which can take an emotional toll on them. They are also at a greater chance of being bullied leading to a negative body image, poor self-esteem, and depression.

What Is Childhood Obesity?

To be able to tell if a person is obese, overweight, or healthy, doctors use a scale called the body mass index or BMI. The BMI of a person is the measure of body weight relative to their height. It uses a formula to determine whether a person is underweight, normal, overweight or obese. For children, the scale uses the age and gender-specific measure called “BMI-for-age”. Doctors use BMI-for-age growth charts made by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to track the growth of a child as per his age. The charts use a percentile system to show how your child’s BMI compares with the other children in his age group.

The BMI of children and teens are classified as:

  • 5th to 84th percentile – Healthy weight
  • 85th to 94th percentile – Overweight
  • 95th percentile or higher – Obese

What the numbers mean is that if a child is in the 85th percentile, he is heavier than 85% of the children of his age and is overweight. If he is in the 95th percentile, he is obese.

Causes of Obesity Among Children

Family history, lifestyle and psychological factors play a role in childhood obesity. Children in families where parents or other members are obese tend to follow the trend. While there is little we can do about that, here are few other causes worth considering, which we can control.

  1. Poor diet and unsupervised snacking are the primary culprits. Fast foods, sugary drinks and snacks, soda, soft drinks and sweets add to the calorie intake and weight.
  2. It also happens that some of the parents do not know how to choose or prepare healthy foods and others might not be able to afford healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
  3. A lack of physical activity adds up to unhealthy eating habits to make kids obese. All people, regardless of their age, put on weight as their physical activity reduces. Exercise expends calories and helps maintain a healthy weight. When children aren’t encouraged to play sports and spend too much time in front of the TV or the computer, they put on weight.
  4. Psychological factors in some of the children and teens lead to obesity. Children who are depressed, bored or are feeling low tend to eat more to cope with the negative emotions.
  5. Children who have been formula-fed as babies tend to be obese as their parents inadvertently overfeed their infants. It is harder to judge the amount of formula to feed and parents often end up feeding them twice as much at a time. Some parents also feed every time the child cries, although crying may be unrelated to hunger.

Child eating burger

What Are the Potential Risks of Obesity in Children?

Being obese puts children at risk of many serious health disorders that would affect them their whole lives. Some of them are as follows:

  1. Diabetes – Overconsumption of sugary foods can lead to type 2 diabetes in children. The body is unable to metabolize glucose properly. It can lead to further complications such as eye diseases, kidney dysfunction and nerve damage. Both children and adults who are obese are likely to develop type 2 diabetes. However, the condition is reversible through proper diet and exercise.
  2. Heart Disease – Fat-rich foods and foods that are salty give rise to high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Both conditions raise the risk of heart disease in obese children. The increase in cholesterol can clog the blood vessels and lead to high blood pressure. Stroke and heart attacks are serious complications that arise out of this.
  3. Asthma – Children who already suffer from Asthma, chronic inflammation of the lung, can have it worse if they are also obese. Asthma and obesity are the most common comorbidities, i.e. they are disorders that co-occur with each other. Even though the link between the two is unclear, a significant number of people suffering from asthma are also obese. It has also been observed that in some people, obesity is a risk factor for more severe asthma.
  4. Sleep Disorders – Obese children who have extra fat around their necks can suffer from blocked airways. It leads to conditions such as sleep apnea where they find it difficult to sleep in the night due to interrupted breathing. They can also have excessive snoring problems.
  5. Joint Pain – Carrying excess weight can lead to children experiencing joint stiffness, limited range of motion and pain. Losing weight can fix this issue naturally.

Obese tired child in park

Diagnosis of Obesity in Children

Doctors use the BMI criterion to diagnose obesity along with other factors. BMI doesn’t account for muscle mass, larger than average body frame, and varying growth patterns among children. Therefore doctors also look for:

  1. Family history of obesity and other disorders.
  2. Child’s eating habits.
  3. Activity levels and exercise.
  4. Psychological history such as depressions, stress, sadness etc.

The doctor may also ask for cholesterol and blood sugar tests along with checks for hormone imbalances and other conditions that go with obesity.

Healthy Eating and Nutrition for Overweight Kids

Since parents have control over groceries, ‘healthy’ will have to be the motto of buying in the first place. Here are a few tips in that direction.

  1. While shopping for food, pick more fruits and vegetables and fewer convenience foods such as prepared meals, cookies, crackers, etc. These are high in fat and sugar.
  2. Cut back on sweetened beverages. This includes fruit juices along with soda and soft drinks. Fruit juices provide less nutritional value in exchange for their high calories. Juices can also make children feel full and avoid eating much-needed healthy foods.
  3. Limit fast food. They are almost always high in fat and calories.
  4. Eat together as a family. Children are more mindful of what they eat and how much they eat at the dining table rather than in front of the TV or the computer. Family time at the dinner table is also a good time to talk, tell stories, and bond.
  5. Serve the right portion sizes. Allow children to eat until they feel full, even if that means some food is left on the plate. When eating out, remember that restaurant portion sizes are often larger and children don’t need to eat as much as adults do.

Child making healthy food choice

How to Prevent Obesity in Children

There are a few basic ways to prevent childhood obesity:

  • Choose to breastfeed over formula feed for babies, if that is an option.
  • Help the child develop a liking for fruits and vegetables by delaying junk food as long as possible.
  • Avoid sugar-rich foods such as candy, chocolates, ice creams and juices and reserve them for special occasions.
  • Reduce screen time and increase their outdoor time. Physical activity burns the calories consumed.
  • Encourage participation in sports and outdoor activities.

Ways to Help Your Child Fight Obesity

Here are some childhood obesity solutions to help your child maintain a healthy weight.

1. Learn the Basics of Nutrition

Quite a few parents are clueless about what is essential and what isn’t in terms of nutrition and they often go with advertisements. Learning the basics of nutrition would allow them to choose smart and beat misunderstanding. That way they can help their child eat better.

2. Get the Whole Family Involved

Healthy habits are established at home. When everybody sticks to eating healthy food and engaging in a good amount of physical activity, it compels children to keep up. Since kids learn extensively by observing their parents, it’s important that you lead your child by example.

3. Emphasize On Physical Activity

Allow your kids to play more outdoors than indoors. Physical activity is a must for growth and development and you can participate with your kids and have a good time together. Also encourage them to take up sports and activities such as dancing, swimming, skating, football etc.

4. Be Smart About Food

You don’t need to turn into food police and enforce a ban on all foods that can be fattening. That only makes them crave it more. The key is moderation. Limit junk and fast foods and increase healthy home-cooked meals. It also sets up long-term, healthy, eating habit in children.

5. Talk to Your Children About Their Feelings

If the child is obese, help him to better deal with his emotions than to eat excessively. Do not pass negative comments that can be hurtful even if it is well-intended. Praise the child when he makes efforts and progress.

What If Your Child Remains Obese Even When He Grows Up?

Your child may not fully lose the extra fat, but to ensure health, you can teach him to make better choices in food and to always get adequate exercise. Staying active can improve his chances of heading off a weight problem as he grows older. Even if the child doesn’t achieve a normal weight, he can continue being healthy through good habits.

Fighting childhood obesity involves a combination of awareness and continuous effort on the part of both the parents and the children. By establishing healthy eating habits and with adequate exercise, it is possible to beat obesity.

Also Read: Calcium-Rich Foods for Kids

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