Meredith Singer | HealthGreatness
How big of a problem is it?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that in the past 30 years, the rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. In 2012 approximately 17% of children and adolescents between 2-19 years old were considered obese and over 1/3 of children and adolescents were either overweight or obese.
Childhood obesity is a relatively new phenomenon and this growing problem is considered a significant public health problem by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). While the data is not there to identify one particular culprit, there are a number of factors that can influence weight in childhood.
How is childhood obesity different than being overweight?
Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) at or above the 95th% of the gender-specific BMI for age growth charts published by the CDC. A child is considered overweight when his/her BMI is above the 85th% and below the 95th% for age and gender.
Health Risks of Childhood Obesity
Obese children and adolescents are at risk for many health problems that are often associated with adults. Not only can these diagnoses at an early age can lead to worsening health as an adult, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) up to 80% of obese children will grow into obese adults. Some of these problems include:
- Cardiovascular disease, due to associated hypertension, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea
- Diabetes mellitus or impaired fasting glucose (pre-diabetes)
- Fatty liver, gallstones, and gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD)
- Psychological and social problems, including lower health-related quality of life
Why are rates so high?
Weight is gained when more calories are consumed than expended. While it is normal for children and adolescents to gain weight as they grow, they become overweight or obese when an excess of calories is consumed versus what is expended in normal growth and activity. According to the CDC this imbalance can be affected by genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.
More calories going in
- Children and adolescents today have more access to sugary drinks and processed snacks than ever before. Vending machines stocking these items are commonly found in schools.
- Advertisements for unhealthy food are found in schools as well as media outlets. According to the HHS, $10 to $12 billion is spent annually by the food and beverage industry to target children and adolescents specifically.
- Many children and adolescents are not exposed to healthy family meals so they are not educated to make good choices. In addition, portion size has been increasing in restaurants so it is easier to overeat when dining out.
- Many communities have limited access to affordable, healthy foods (known as a food desert).
Less energy out
- According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), children should participate in about 1 hour of aerobic physical activity per day yet there is a lack of physical activity at schools (elimination of PE classes and recess).
- Many communities lack safe places for kids to play.
- Overall time spent with media (such as TV, computers, smartphones, video games). According to the AAP, watching TV is the secondary only to sleep in terms of physically inactive activities for adolescents.
What can be done?
Childhood obesity, like adult obesity, is easier to prevent than treat. Children and adolescents, in addition to their families, need to be educated on both how to make good food choices and why it is important. Daily physical activity is a must as is limiting time spent with media.