The Causes and Risks of Childhood Obesity – and Ways to Prevent It

Because fluffy does not always mean healthy! The Month of September is National Childhood Awareness Month.

About 1 in 5 children in the US have obesity, with certain children more prone to obesity than the others. Several factors play a role – genetics or family history, psychological factors, and even lifestyle can be contributory. In celebration of National Childhood Obesity Month, which falls every September, let us look at the basic facts on this condition to raise awareness and help prevent the consequences.

What is childhood obesity?

As with adults, the tool to measure children’s weight status is their body mass index (BMI), calculated using height and weight. The BMI percentile refers to where your BMI value falls for other people and is determined through gender and age.

Children with a BMI at the same level or greater than 95% of their peers are deemed to be obese. Obesity among children has tripled over the past three decades and is now at a shocking 19.3% prevalence. It is now classified as a serious problem, putting many children and adolescents at a greater risk for lifestyle illnesses and diseases. Childhood obesity can further predispose to depression and low self-esteem.

What are the causes of childhood obesity?

There are numerous causes of childhood obesity – from genetics, psychological factors, metabolism, family and home environment, and lifestyle – but among these, the main cause is often traced to eating too much and exercising too little.

With the popularity of junk food all around us, it is unsurprising that childhood obesity rates would skyrocket. In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services reports that, on average, 32% of adolescent girls and 52% of adolescent boys drink at least 24 ounces of soda per day!

These sugary beverages and junk food are just part of the culprit. The following also cause childhood obesity:

  • Too little physical activity. Exercise burns calories and is supposed to balance the stuff that you eat daily.

  • Inadequate sleep. Children should be taught to get at least nine hours of sleep daily. Research showed that children who missed the sleep benchmark by an hour were 58% more likely to be overweight or obese than kids who get the right amount of sleep. Accordingly, each hour increase in sleep reduces the risk for overweight/obesity by 9%.

  • Lack of places where children can go to have physical or outdoor activity. Without places where children can actually run, play, and swim, children are forced to remain indoors, promoting a sedentary lifestyle.

  • Lack of access to affordable, reasonably priced, healthier food. Because we have to admit – healthy food is more expensive! This makes obesity a disease highly reflective of socio-economic status. Some children also become obese because their parents do not know how to make well-balanced snacks and meals.

What are the health risks associated with childhood obesity?

Children who are obese are more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, and asthma than their peers.

Type II diabetes is a condition where the body fails to metabolize glucose properly. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle increase a child’s chances of developing diabetes. Many complications arise from diabetes, including eye problems, nerve damage, and can be as debilitating as kidney failure.

Heart disease can be due to increased cholesterol levels and persistently high blood pressure, manifest even in obese children. These stem from a poorly balanced diet, which can lead to plaques in the child’s blood vessels.

Breathing problems, specifically asthma, are quite common in overweight children. On top of that, these children can also develop obstructive sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder characterized by periods when breathing repeatedly stops (then restarts) during a child’s sleep.