Overview, Factors and Prevention of Childhood Obesity

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Everyone gushes over the cuteness of chubby-cheeked babies and plump children, little realizing that being overweight as a child is a serious concern and, if not corrected in time, can lead to far greater negative outcomes. Over the last decade, India has seen an increase in children who are either severely undernourished or severely overweight. Thus, childhood obesity as an urban phenomenon requires as much attention as the issue of lack of nutrition.
The World Health Organization defines obesity as a ”abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health”. Medically, childhood obesity is measured using the ‘Body Mass Index (BMI)-for-age percentile’ which is calculated using the child’s height and weight as per age. Children whose BMI-for-age percentile is greater than 95% are considered obese. It means their weight is higher than 95% of children of the same age. A percentile range of 85%-95% is considered as overweight.
childhood-obesityCauses of Obesity in Children- Few of the most common reasons:

  • Inadequate physical activity- Lack of space for playing an increasing preference for passive recreational activities mean today’s children lead more sedentary lives.
  • Dietary patterns- Calorie intake and meal portion sizes have increased over the years. Today children eat calorie dense foods as well as in quantities more than what is required by the body.
  • Environmental influences- Today’s busy lifestyles encourage wrong meal choices. Widespread promotion and availability of readymade food lead to a dependence on them. Multiple snacking options are available outside the home – be at a school canteen or a street food stall.
  • A family history of obesity – Heredity plays a role; overweight or obese parents are more likely to have overweight children.
  • Medical conditions- Hormonal imbalances can lead to rapid weight gain and should be ruled out by seeking medical consultation.
  • Psychological issues- An inability to cope with stress can result in children overeating or eating junk food to feel better.

Health problems associated with Child Obesity:
Obese children are at risk of early onset of health complications like fatty liver, heart disease due to high cholesterol levels, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, Cancer, Asthma, breathing difficulties and even Sleep Apnoea, wherein breathing stops during sleep. Childhood obesity triggers hormonal imbalances leading to early onset of puberty. It also leads to social and emotional complications. Children may become victims of bullying, develop low self-esteem and depression. Research finds obese children have more anxieties and poor social skills which affect their learning in school.

Dealing with Childhood Obesity:
An individualized weight management program should be developed for the obese child in consultation with and under the guidance of doctors, nutritionists/dieticians and, if required, a counselor/psychologist.
While regular exercise and dietary changes are the pillars of battling childhood obesity and parents are expected to take control of this situation, an often overlooked aspect is dealing with the psychological and emotional impact. All adults and especially parents must ensure that they encourage fitness and weight loss without being critical. Building up the child’s self-esteem is important and efforts on their part to become healthy should be praised. They should be sensitive towards the feelings of the child and help the child deal with negative emotions in a healthy manner rather than resorting to eating as a coping technique. Parents should set an example of healthy living for their children.