Since the 1980s, the rates of childhood obesity in the United States have more than tripled. A 2008 study found that the rate of obese and overweight children was at 32 percent. This rate even holds for infants nine months old to two years old. This infant weight status is strongly associated with preschool weight status and so on.
Childhood obesity, often just referred to as “overweight” to avoid stigma, is when a child’s excess fat is detrimental to the youth’s health and wellbeing. With rates skyrocketing, the epidemic is considered a serious public health concern. In the United States, public health campaigns are underway to address children’s caloric needs and to reduce sedentary lifestyles.
Obesity in children is associated with many long-term health problems. Some of these include:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Sleep problems
- Harassment and discrimination
- Effects on puberty and growth
- Liver disease
- Poor self-esteem
Children who are obese are likely to continue to be obese on into adulthood. Obese children are likely to live five years less than their healthier peers. This may make them the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
What Causes Childhood Obesity?
Childhood obesity can be caused by a variety of factors often working in conjunction. This is called an “obesogenic environment.” Obese parents are the greatest risk factor for childhood obesity. Though this may suggest a genetic cause, the trend also has to do with the environment obese parents create that caters to obesity.
Psychological factors and the child’s body type may also contribute to obesity. It has also been suggested that obesity may be selected for, evolutionarily favoring those who have a slower metabolism and therefore need less food. This in combination with ready availability of cheap, calorie-dense foods and sedentary lifestyles create the perfect obesity cocktail.
What Can Be Done to Prevent Childhood Obesity?
Studies exploring the effect of dietary interventions to curb childhood obesity have produced mixed results. One such study divided 5,106 school children into a test group and a control group. The test group was served two lower-calorie meals per day for over one year. The intervention showed no significant difference in body mass index (BMI) between the two groups.
Still, children who drink soft drinks are much more likely to be obese. A nineteen-month study of 548 children found that youth are 1.6 times more likely to be obese for every serving of soda they consumed per day. This suggests reduced access to sugar-filled beverages may help reduce childhood obesity. Some jurisdictions have even gone so far as to ban the sale of soft drinks in school vending machines.
Studies also show that obese children are 35% less physically active during school days and 65% less active during weekends than non-obese children. Physical inactivity leaves energy in the body unused. Unused energy is eventually stored as fat. This suggests another way to prevent childhood obesity is to make sure children are physically active.
Many children fail to exercise because they are doing immobile activities such as playing video games, watching television, or surfing the internet. Many of these activities have other side effects that can harm a child, such as poor cognitive engagement.
There are many government programs and initiatives aimed at aggressively attacking childhood obesity. One of those programs is Letsmove.gov started by first lady Michelle Obama. Letsmove.gov encourages children to be more physically active and to put down the video games. It also offers tips on portion control.
Another initiative the government is pushing is for mothers to breastfeed their children. This has been associated with decreased risks for childhood obesity.
Childhood obesity is a very real problem in the United States. There are a number of steps parents can take to make sure their child does not wander down the path of lifelong weight troubles. For comprehensive advice on how to help fight childhood obesity, consult with one’s pediatrician.