Childhood Obesity: The Increasing Epidemic of New Generations
Kids come in all shapes and sizes, but some of those sizes are dangerous to their health. What is childhood obesity? What are the symptoms, causes, treatments, and effects of it? How does it affect childhood development? What are tips and ways to prevent it?
What is childhood obesity?
Childhood obesity is a condition that occurs in children where the excess body fat negatively impacts the child’s health and well-being. It is often referred to as overweight rather than obese because it is less stigmatizing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of obese children has tripled since 1970. Data from 2015-2016 show that 1 in every 5 kids/adolescents, around 18%, between the ages of 6 and 19 are considered obese in the United States. Globally, according to the World Health Organization, in 2016 the number of overweight children under the age of five was over 41 million. Almost half of the obese children under five lived in Asia and about one quarter lived in Africa.
There is an incredible increase in obesity within the last few decades. In the 1970’s, about 5% of children were considered obese. By 2000, over 13% of children were considered obese. By 2010, the numbers leveled out to about 18% of the adolescent population being considered obese.
“Overweight children make overweight adults.”
Overweight children are likely to stay obese into their adulthood and are more likely to develop diseases like diabetes at a younger age.
The CDC recommends that body mass index (BMI) is used to measure obesity in children over the age of two because it takes into account that young people are still growing (at different rates). Doctors use charts to measure whether or not an adolescent’s weight falls into the healthy range for their age, sex, and height. The CDC has classified overweight (for children) as having a BMI over the 85th percentile and childhood obesity being greater than or equal to the 95th percentile.
Symptoms of childhood obesity
Using a chart to measure the height and weight of a child is the best way to see if a child is obese and growing proportionally. While having an excess in weight is usually associated with being obese and having an excessive amount of fat tissue, some kids can be over-muscled. The idea that someone is “big-boned” is a myth.
Causes of childhood obesity
Most cases of obesity are caused by an excessive intake of calories daily without working those calories off. Often, an excessive intake of calories is associated with poor food choices- such as fast-food, and foods high in fat and sugar. However, healthy calories can cause obesity, too. The fact is that all excessive calories, whether a greek yogurt or a triple cheeseburger, will be stored in the body as fat if it isn’t worked off somehow. Body weight is a simple reflection of genes, metabolism, culture, behaviors, and socioeconomic status. There are other causes of obesity, especially childhood obesity, such as genetics, family practices, social practices, and socioeconomic status.
Genetics play a large role in childhood obesity. Obesity can be contributed to genetics between 6%-85% of the time depending on the population examined. There are over 200 genes that affect weight by way of activity level, body type, food preferences, and metabolism. The polymorphisms that occur in some genes control appetite. Our metabolism is passed down genetically and can predispose us to obesity when there are enough calories present. One study found that 80% of kids with two obese parents were obese in contrast to less than 10% of kids whose parents were of a normal weight. Other studies have found that if one parent is obese, the kid is 3 times more likely to be obese. Among children under the age of 10, having an overweight parent roughly doubled the child’s risk of becoming a heavy adult, even if the youngster was normal in size. If both parents are obese, the kid is 10 times more likely to be obese. There are also some medical conditions that present themselves during childhood that also can cause obesity. These include:
- Prader-Willi syndrome which is a rare condition that causes excessive hunger and rapid weight gain. It occurs between every 1 of 12,000 and 1 of 15,000 births.
- Bardet-Biedl syndrome
- Melanocortin receptor mutations
- Leptin receptor mutations
- Congenital leptin deficiency
- MOMO syndrome
Family practices are always changing trends and are another factor for obesity.
- Breastfeeding. It’s been found that the trend for not breastfeeding is unhealthy for a baby in the long run. Babies who are reared on baby formula are found to become more overweight.
- Exercise. With fewer children going outside because they are indoors on the couch with the TV and iPad, they’re getting less exercise and subsequently gaining weight. Furthermore, fewer children are biking to school because their parents can drive them which also reduces their physical activity.
- Easy access to unhealthy food and sugary drinks is increasing with the lowered prices of bad food and raised prices for healthy food. It’s cheaper to buy soda than juice. This surrounding can be detrimental to the growth of a kid.
Social practices differ between communities, states, and countries. For example, the quality of school lunches isn’t great in the United States. This lack of good food isn’t a good setup for growing kids. Other factors include:
- Access, or lack thereof, to parks and bike paths
- Prices of healthy food
- Access to healthy, fresh food
- Prices of unhealthy, processed food
- Access to vending machines
- Advertising fast-food restaurants and candy
- Access to fast food restaurants
- An emphasis, or lack thereof, on physical activity in school
Adolescents who come from a lower socioeconomic status, or are part of a racial or ethnic minority, are more likely to be overweight and are less likely to engage in healthy activities. Furthermore, it can be nearly impossible for some families to buy healthy food for their kids due to the high prices of good, fresh food and their low income. This leads kids to grow up on processed food.
Childhood obesity: How does maternal obesity affect the fetal brain?
More than 60% of reproductive-age women are overweight and 35% are obese in the United States. There is a 70% increase in pre-pregnancy obesity. A rise in childhood obesity and metabolic syndrome are occurring in parallel with maternal obesity. While it’s known that maternal obesity, a high gestational weight gain (GWG), and a high-fat diet while pregnant can have harmful effects on the fetus, the effects of what material obesity does to the brain are less known. However, more studies are looking into it. Some of the harmful effects include:
- Increased odds of cognitive deficits
- Increased odds of decreased IQ
- Increased odds of intellectual disability
- Increased odds of autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Increased odds of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Increased odds of cerebral palsy (CP)
A gene expression analysis sound that second-trimester amniotic fluid showed significantly lower expression of genes involved in the normal process of central nervous system (CNS) apoptosis that makes room for neurons. Fetuses of obese women also had a nine-fold increased expression of the apolipoprotein D gene (APOD), which normally is neuroprotective but may be harmful when overexpressed according to the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that these children will have structurally abnormal brains or functional impacts, warned the researchers.
How does childhood obesity affect brain development?
Studies show that childhood obesity can cause issues with brain development- especially if the child is at risk for metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a bunch of little problems that set the stage for heart disease and diabetes. Children with metabolic syndrome scored 10% lower on mental tasks that are essential for learning. Overweight teens with metabolic syndrome couldn’t read as well, scored poorly on math tests, and took longer to complete tasks than teens who aren’t diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. Researchers also saw a physical difference in the brains between kids with metabolic syndrome and those who don’t have it. Risk factors for metabolic syndrome include:
- High levels of triglycerides (fat cells in the blood)
- Belly Fat
- High blood pressure
- Low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol
- Insulin resistance
An MRI study done on 83 teenage females found a correlation between weight gain and low gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex and regions of the brain critical for the control of behavior. The study concluded that this lack of gray matter increased the girl’s risk for future weight gain.
Childhood obesity may also lead to impulsiveness. There is a region of the brain that controls our impulsivity known as the orbitofrontal cortex. Childhood obesity tends to shrink the orbitofrontal cortex in obese children compared to lean children.
How does childhood obesity affect overall development?
- Obesity affects every organ in the body
- Of children who are diagnosed with Type II diabetes, 85% are obese
- Roughly 60% of obese kids have at least one risk for heart disease
- Obese teens are more likely to develop multiple sclerosis later on in life
- Arteries of obese children have damage that is normally seen in adults with heart disease
- Childhood obesity means a higher possibility to develop diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease
- Obese children are more likely to be depressed, isolated, and unable to play sports with friends.
Effects of childhood obesity
Psychologically, kids have a lot of trouble with bullying in general. Moreover when they are obese. Childhood obesity can cause harassment and discrimination from everyone surrounding the child-including family in some cases. Some research has shown that obese adolescents are less likely to be accepted into prestigious universities. Obesity is also proven to lead to a low self-esteem and depression.
Almost all of the organs are affected as well as an increased intracranial pressure. Overall, childhood obesity has been found to coincide with an increased adulthood mortality rate. One 2008 study found that childhood obesity leads to abnormal levels of cholesterol over thirty years into adulthood. Physical effects can include life-threatening conditions. For example:
- Diabetes (especially Type II diabetes)
- Sleep apnea and other sleeping and breathing problems
- Certain cancers (such as breast cancer, colon cancer, and endometrial cancer)
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Early puberty
- Eating disorders
Due to the fact that obese children are likely to be obese adults, long-term effects include Type II Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and cancer. These effects contribute to a shorter lifespan. It’s theorized that children in America may have a shorter lifespan than their parents. One study found that children who became obese as early as age two were more likely to be obese in adulthood, too.
Treatments for childhood obesity
The most common treatment for childhood obesity is a reduced-caloric intake and increased physical activity. However, missing meals and dieting should be discouraged. There are lifestyle changes that can be made. For example, 100% breastfeeding newborn infants and offering appropriate food portions. Also, an increase in physical activity with minimal sedentary behavior should help decrease the obesity levels. There are medications to take for obesity, but none for obesity in children. However, during adolescence, Orlistat, Sibutramine, and Metformin may be helpful in moderating obesity. As with the medications, there are no approved surgeries for obese children. However, there are numerous studies being done on various possibilities for the future treatment of childhood obesity.
Prevention of childhood obesity
A child is exposed to calorie-rich drinks and foods daily and eating habits are crucial to child development. You are what you eat, right? While there are several inconclusive studies done on healthy school eating with an exercise program on grade school aged kids, there is evidence that soft drinks, like Dr.Pepper and 7-Up, contribute to childhood obesity. According to a study done over a 19-month period on 548 children, the likelihood of obesity increased 1.6 times for each soft drink consumed per day. Whole milk versus 2% milk in children under the age of two had no effect on weight, height, or body fat percentage- whole milk is the recommended milk for this age group.
Being physically inactive leaves unused energy in the body which is mostly stored as fat. It’s been shown that kids who don’t partake in physical activity have a higher risk of obesity. In a study done on 133 children during a three-week period, it was found that those kids who are considered to be obese were 35% less active on school days and 65% less active on weekends compared to their classmates who are considered non-obese. It’s also been proven that a lack of physical activity as a kid can result in a lack of physical activity as an adult.
Many children spend time doing activities like being on the computer, watching TV, or playing video games. Those activities don’t require much movement. Technology is a huge factor for physical inactiveness. One study found that children were 21.5% more likely to be overweight when watching over four hours of TV a day, and 4.5% more likely to be overweight when using a computer for over an hour a day.
A lack of physical activity in kids is linked to obesity in the U.S. In 2009, a study found that 89% of a preschooler’s day is sedentary- even outside 56% of the activities weren’t physically active. It’s suggested that this is due to a lack of motivation from the teachers and research suggests that even something as simple as adding balls and toys on the playground increases physical activity.
What a family has in their kitchen is a huge influencer as to what a kid puts in their bodies. A study done with questionnaires on 18,177 children between the ages of 11 and 21 found that four out of five parents let their children make their own food decisions. Researchers also found that kids who ate four to five meals per week with their family, compared to those who ate three or less, were 19% less likely to report a lack of healthy vegetable consumption, 22% less likely to report a lack of healthy fruit consumption, and 19% less likely to report a lack of healthy dairy products. Kids who are six to seven meals a week with their family reported to ve 38% less likely to have a poor consumption of vegetables, 31% less likely to have a poor consumption of fruits, and 27% less likely to have a poor consumption of dairy products.
A study in the UK done in 2010 suggested that kids raised by grandparents are more likely to be obese as adults compared to those who were raised by their parents. A study done in the U.S. in 2011 suggested that the more a mother works, the more likely the child is to be overweight or obese.
There are some childhood developmental factors that can have an effect on obesity rates. It’s been found that breastfeeding can protect against obesity later in life due to the correlation between obesity rates in adults and breastfeeding rates among them.
It turns out fat babies may not just have “baby fat”. Researchers studied 19,397 babies from birth until age seven and found that fat babies at four months old are 1.38 times more likely to be considered overweight by age seven compared to those babies who were born at what is considered a normal weight. Fat babies at age one are 1.17 times more likely to be considered overweight by age seven.
There are several medical illnesses that can contribute to childhood obesity. Cushing’s syndrome, a syndrome in which the body contains high amounts of cortisol, is an influencer on obesity. It’s been found that Cushing’s syndrome can possibly be activated by the activity of cortisol and insulin in the bloodstream. Hypothyroidism is a hormonal cause of obesity, though there isn’t a big difference in obese people who have it compared to those who don’t.
There is a strong correlation between obesity and ADHD– in both kids and adults. This correlation is thought to occur because:
- There is a correlation between mental health issues, like binge eating and other eating disorders, and ADHD.
- ADHD increases stress, which increases the risk of depression. Some people turn to food to eat their feelings away.
- People with ADHD have the tendency to struggle with impulse control, which can make it difficult not to overeat.
Tips for parents to prevent childhood obesity and fetal obesity
- Respect the child’s appetite
- Don’t reward the completion of a meal- especially with a sweet dessert
- Provide foods with enough fiber like peas and beans
- Limit the amount of high-calorie foods kept at home
- Limit TV watching and computer time
- Avoid pre-prepared food, sugary foods, and fast foods
- Replace whole milk with 2% milk if really concerned about obesity
- Provide the child with a healthy diet of 30% or fewer calories from fat
- Make sure the child is getting enough physical exercise and encourage physical activity when possible.
How have you combated childhood obesity? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.