Childhood obesity is spreading like an epidemic in most countries of the world. In the past 4 decades, the world has seen an alarming rise in the proportions of children having obesity. Childhood obesity is considered one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. Even in India, over 10 million cases of childhood obesity are reported per year. Also called pediatric obesity, this problem has significant effects on the child’s physical and psychological health. And these health issues may continue even in adulthood.
What is childhood obesity?
Many children are chubby. That does not mean they are obese. Obesity is defined as an excess of body fat (BF). Different countries have different cut-off points for marking excess fatness as obesity in children and adolescents. But on an average, “Overweight” is defined as at or above the 95th percentile of body mass index (BMI) for age. And “at risk for overweight” is defined as at 85th to 95th percentile of BMI for age.
What causes obesity in children?
An unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits are the biggest causes of obesity in children. Pampering by parents, their desire to give comfort to kids, and overprotectiveness may sometimes turn unhealthy for children. Children love junk food and soft drinks. But such highly processed food rich in calories, fat, and sugar can lead to obesity. Kids nowadays also live a less active life than their parents or grandparents. They are too dependent on being driven to places instead of walking. And they spend too much time with smartphones, televisions, and computers. This leads to a sedentary lifestyle. Children need outdoor activities and sports for healthy growth and strong bones.
Genetics may also play a role in pediatric obesity. And the family environment is also responsible. If the parents have an unhealthy lifestyle, children will learn and follow the same.
Certain psychological problems like depression may also lead to an unhealthy eating pattern. This can cause obesity. Worse, being overweight can aggravate depression too. Children can get stressed too and may develop other emotional problems like low self-esteem. All of this can lead to mood eating and binging. And this can increase the child’s weight.
Effects of obesity in children:
Overweight and obese children may develop several physical, psychological, and social problems. And their struggles with weight management may continue even in adulthood. People who were obese as children may develop health issues like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age.
Childhood obesity has been linked to several medical conditions. These include Type 2 diabetes, hepatic steatosis (fatty liver disease), sleep apnea, asthma, cardiovascular disease, cholelithiasis (gallstones), high cholesterol, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, skin conditions, impaired balance, menstrual abnormalities, and orthopedic problems. Obesity can also lower immunity and make children more vulnerable to infection.
Psychological and social effects:
Children who are overweight or obese may also develop psychological and social issues. They may have low self-esteem, feel depressed, and withdraw from social interaction. It may also affect their academic performance. Children struggling with obesity often protect themselves from mockery and negative comments by retreating to safe places, such as their homes. And they may seek comfort in eating food they love.
Overweight children tend to have fewer friends. They have less social interaction and outdoor games and activities. They spend more time engaged in sedentary activities alone, like playing games on a smartphone.
How to prevent and control childhood obesity?
If your child is overweight or obese, do not despair. There’s a lot you can do to help your child achieve a healthy weight. Here are a few tips to control childhood obesity:
The first thing you need to do is to control your child’s food choices. But remember, you must take care of the child’s overall health, not just weight loss. So, have them eat healthy food, not less food. Limit their intake of junk food and soft drinks. Educate them about the harms of fast food items.
Encourage them to have healthy and nutritious meals that include grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries, dairy, etc. Try to make these interesting for the children so they won’t say no to healthy food. Also, let them have frequent healthy snacks to control their food urges and prevent binge eating.
Exercise is very important for children. It does not just help in weight management but also takes care of health and bone strength. So, set up a routine that includes sufficient distraction-free time for the children to exercise.
More physical activities:
Encourage children to take part in outdoor games instead of spending hours with phones or computers. The more active lifestyle they lead, the better it will be for their weight control.
Emotional support and encouragement:
Children with weight problems may develop several psychological issues. So, it is imperative to give them emotional support. Losing weight is a hard battle. It can be harder for children. You need to support them through it.
Be a good role model:
You can’t expect your children to exercise and eat healthy food if you don’t lead by example. Examine your family environment and food choices. Make exercise a family activity. Have healthy meals together and make this family time enjoyable. If you want your child to stay away from junk food, you need to do it first.
See a doctor:
If even proper diet and regular exercise are not reducing your child’s weight, it might be because of genes or some health problems. Consulting a doctor can give you a better idea about how to control the obesity of your child.
The environment at home and school can have a lot of effect on the child’s health and wellbeing. This includes the child’s weight management. If parents follow a healthy lifestyle at home and eat a nutritious meal, a lot of weight-related problems can be controlled. Understand the causes behind your child’s obesity and control them. Help your child to make nutritious food choices and live an active life. Being overweight is not the fault of the children, but a struggle they face. Parents can and must help them overcome this struggle and have a healthy life.