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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.

Joint pain because of apparent weight gain can be a health risk involved with childhood obesity. The extra weight poses more stress on the bones and joints, which can inflict pain and more injuries (even fractures) on the hips, knees, and back.

One of the worst health risks would be nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This is characterized by scarring and liver damage due to the build-up of fatty deposits in the liver.

What can we do to prevent childhood obesity?

This National Childhood Obesity Month is the perfect time and avenue to promote measures to prevent childhood obesity. Childhood obesity has become a major public health problem, especially because obese children are likely to become obese adults. Thus, it is important to start as soon as possible to prevent or treat the condition.

First and foremost, if you are a parent, be actively involved. Know your child’s weight status and if this equates to weight issues. Know your child’s usual meal, snacks, routine activities, even the amount of sleep they actually get.

Fill your cupboards and fridges with healthy food and snacks. There should be easy access to the right stuff. Nutritious low-calorie foods in the form of fruits and vegetables are your best option. Even at a young age (infant and toddler stage), train your children to eat real food and not readily prepared baby food. In this way, they become accustomed to the taste of real veggies and fruits. If your children are already eating high-calorie snacks, try to little by little replace the usual food with more servings of fruit and vegetables in both meals and snacks.

Drinking water should be a priority and should always be available as an alternative to sugary drinks. Limit fruit juice intake and make sure these fruit juices are natural, not synthetic.

The recommended minimum amount of physical activity is 60 minutes per day. Encourage your children to engage in outdoor activities. Research for age-appropriate outdoor activities for your child. This does not only promote a healthy weight, but it also encourages better sleeping patterns, better academic achievement, and better mental wellbeing because of reduced anxiety and stress.

Decrease screen time! It encourages a sedentary lifestyle and limits your child’s imagination. Give your children opportunities to explore the world around them. You can enroll them in classes that enhance their creativity and activity.

Do you know that a healthy sleep habit begets a healthy weight? Make sure your child gets at least eight to nine hours of sleep daily, depending on their age. And make sure these hours of sleep fall at the right timing where our melatonin levels peak – so make sure they go to bed at eight or nine in the evening for a full rejuvenating sleep.

And last but not least – be your children’s best example! Eat the right foods and engage in physical activity. Your children will look up to you for reference, and your efforts will definitely not be in vain.

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