Childhood Obesity

April 19, 2022

It is not uncommon to see children far above their normal weight these days. Childhood obesity is on the rise at an alarming rate, and this is due to many different factors. 

Food is medicine, but it is also the most poorly utilized drug today. This article will explore how a foundation of unhealthy food habits laid down at a young age can cause childhood obesity and set children on a lifelong path of diseases. We will also cover ground on how establishing healthy lifestyle patterns and teaching your child to eat healthy by adopting the Functional Nutrition approach at an early age is simple yet crucial and life-changing.

Childhood obesity is one of the biggest challenges to public health in the 21st century. Although the definition of obesity has changed over the years, it can be defined as an excess of body fat. There is no specified Body Mass Index (BMI) cut-off to indicate excess fat percentage or obesity in children and adolescents as there is in adults because body fat differs according to age and gender in this demographic. 

However, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention defines obesity in children as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex. For example, a 10-year-old boy of average height (56 inches) who weighs 102 pounds would have a BMI of 22.9 kg/m2. This would place the boy in the 95th percentile for BMI, and he would be considered to have obesity. This means that the child’s BMI is greater than the BMI of 95% of 10-year-old boys in the reference population.(1)

Causes of Childhood Obesity

Childhood Obesity in India is becoming a serious problem, as India has the second-highest number of obese children globally. There are a lot of contributing factors behind this rampant rise in obesity rates in India and globally:

• Easy availability of unhealthy, calorie-dense foods at a low price has spiked childhood obesity rates worldwide. These foods also have zero to little nutritional value, lead to excessive weight gain, and accelerate the development of diseases in the body instead. 

• Lack of physical activity supported by societies structured on maximum technological involvement are also contributing factors to the childhood obesity pandemic. 

This century's children and adolescents have had a phone thrust into their hands almost as soon as they are born. This serves as a source of entertainment for them and is also a relief for the often overworked parents. However, if given a completely loose rein, tech-savviness can turn into an all-consuming dependency on tech – so much so that children even refuse to eat without their iPad or their favorite show playing.

This creates a domino effect in multiple ways – Firstly, TV shows advertise all kinds of junk foods, sodas, fast foods, and many unhealthy things. They make eating burgers and drinking carbonated beverages look "cool". This is bad because there is a direct link between childhood obesity and advertisements. They program children to want these foods more and more by flashing the products at them repeatedly, increasing their consumption.

Secondly, being glued to the TV/ laptop/ iPad acts as a deterrent for children in pursuing physical exercise. Online content is designed to be addictive, discouraging children from leaving their screens and engaging in actual physical activity. It is no wonder that it is a rare sight to see children playing in parks these days.

The math is simple – Consuming more calories than one needs and finding no way to burn them leads to obesity. Therefore, children should be encouraged to limit their screen time and play outside, at least for a little while.

Thirdly, pop culture makes obese children look cool or what they call "fat kids". The "fat kid" is always the funniest, goofiest, and most liked. They are caricatured in a way to make being obese or overweight desirable, as it is considered "cute". In reality, there is nothing cute about being obese – it can lead to a host of health problems like high blood pressure, weak joints and heart diseases. Making childhood obesity look funny is extremely dangerous, and such portrayals must be stopped.

• Another major cause of childhood obesity is prioritizing convenience over nutrition. As societies become more modern, urbanized and economically sound, they move away from traditional foods and go towards "easy to cook", ready in 5 minutes, "instant" foods. These foods have little nutritional value compared to natural, organic foods that our ancestors have been eating for generations and cause constant weight gain in children if consumed regularly.

• At the crux of all obesity, problems lies a person's relationship with food: if children are taught from a young age about healthy foods, the nourishment they provide to the body and how they are a better option in the face of all fast foods, they will latch on to these concepts and implement them every day for the rest of their lives. This is the easiest way to curb the childhood obesity pandemic.

Risk factors of Childhood Obesity

39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020 and over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016

Obese kids are considered directly on the path to adult diseases like high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.

Obese children are also at an increased risk of hypertension, weak joints, osteoarthritis, high triglycerides (the main component of body fat in humans), Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, respiratory problems, psychological problems, pediatric metabolic syndrome, endocrine disorders and even some cancers. 

Childhood Obesity can also cause body image issues, low self-esteem, extreme social isolation, and in some cases, anxiety and depression.

Two out of three obese children remain obese as adults and are at risk for adult lifestyle diseases. (2)

These are just some of the risk factors for obesity. Then, it is important to catch the symptoms early on in children and nip this problem in the bud.

How To Tackle Childhood Obesity?

Once a child is on the path of being overweight, it is a very slippery slope from there onwards. It is crucial to catch the problem early and save our future generations from a life full of diseases and complications.

Here are a few measures to prevent childhood obesity, which also work as excellent measures in managing childhood obesity 

Educate your children: help your child understand the basic concept and components of food- which foods are good for them, which foods will provide them with optimum nutrition and which foods will cause them harm, even if they are easily available.

Encourage physical activity: Habituate your children into engaging in a sport or any physical activity of their choice for at least 30 minutes a day. Enlighten them on the benefits of regular movements all day long and discourage them from leading a sedentary life.

•Set a good example: Children emulate their parents in every way, so the best way to pass on good eating habits is to be a good role model. Plan your meals with your kids, teach them how to enjoy healthy foods, and teach them how to enjoy junk food sometimes. Demonising junk food only makes children want it more - so get a step ahead of unplanned binge eating sessions and have a designated “cheat meal” now and then. 

Ditch the TV during mealtime: It is scientifically proven that people lose track of the amount of food they eat if they eat while watching TV. This also makes them feel less full on higher quantities of food. Make mealtimes a special family ritual in which no phones or TVs are allowed, and encourage your children to eat intuitively instead of quantitatively. This will provide you with some quality family time, it will also help the food nourish your body better.

Childhood Obesity Intervention Programmes: Kids spend most of their time in school with their teachers and peers, so it is important to include them in this process of battling childhood obesity. 

Awareness about childhood obesity and its ill effects should be raised in schools using children-friendly approaches like plays, posters, comics and educational videos.

The availability of foods like soft drinks, fatty foods, and foods with high sugar content should be regulated in school canteens.

Cooking classes should be conducted in schools as an extracurricular activity so that children become self-sufficient and always have the option of eating healthy food.

Having a mandatory physical education and health awareness class under proper supervision would also be a giant step in combating childhood obesity. Good habits are not formed in a day, so the mandatory component becomes important in some cases.

Once children get used to playing outside, they will get addicted to how good it makes them feel, and this will set them on a path of incorporating more healthy habits. (3,4)

These are just some of the few tools to empower you- the parent or the guardian, to take the best possible care of your child. Healthy food habits are a lifetime asset and work even better if molded into childhood. Eating healthy can save a person lakhs in hospital treatments – so commit to a holistic lifestyle, even if it seems expensive in the short run.

References :

Sukanya Krishnan

Sukanya is a lawyer by education and has also completed CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) from Cambridge University, conducted by the British Council. She has experience in content writing and is currently exploring the field further through freelance projects.

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