Childhood Obesity And How It Can Impact Your Child’s Health

  • 7 mins 51 Sec read
  • Health Conditions
  • Written by: Dr. Pramod Mane
Impact on Child’s Health

Picture this. A child sitting on a couch, watching TV, and munching on a bowl of chips or popcorn with a soft drink for company. This is the new-age definition of ‘chilling’, where fun is equated with eating junk and being sedentary. With education still being largely online, and children spending a lot of time at home, they continue to constantly remain glued to their laptops and video games. While this might sound normal at the outset, there’s actually a disaster waiting to happen.

Here’s why: normal BMI is gradually becoming a rarity amongst children and obesity-related diseases are on the rise. Excessive salt and sugar in food items such as toffees, chips, jellies, cookies, sugary drinks, etc. increases a child’s craving for unhealthy food. Disorders like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are raising their heads due to these habits. Lifestyle changes, increased dependence on technology, unhealthy food consumption, and hours of physical inactivity have increased the incidence of childhood obesity amongst children.

Here are some eye-opening childhood obesity facts

39 million children across the globe under the age of 5 were found to be overweight or obese in 2020.

A study conducted on obese children found that around 63.6% of obese children had non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Nearly 60 % of overweight children aged 5 to 17 had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease and 25% had two or more.

Obese kids have an 80 % chance of staying obese their entire lives.

By now, you have probably grasped the seriousness of the situation. The numbers are in millions and our lifestyles are starting to become a serious problem.

Acknowledging we have a problem

It is time for adults to take responsibility and acknowledge the fact that childhood obesity is a humongous issue that needs our attention. There are various ways a child might go down the spiral of obesity. Causes of childhood obesity are as follows:

It’s in the genes
Children may become overweight or obese due to genetic factors. For some people, obesity runs in the family. That way, children also tend to be obese and take on the same lifestyle as their parents. This is a common cause of child obesity.

The food is at fault
Unhealthy eating habits are another reason why a child can put on unhealthy weight. Eating junk food for meals, sipping on aerated sugary drinks, and snacking multiple times a day on salty and sugary packaged snacks can make anyone overweight. The difference is a child wouldn’t know how their food is a silent killer compared to an adult.

Sitting is the problem
A sedentary lifestyle is a leading cause of obesity. Long gone are the days when children were seen playing outside. It’s just video games and being glued to the screen now. This lifestyle change from outdoors to indoors has caused children physical and psychological troubles. Gaining weight and loss of flexibility is an example of the former. Childhood overweight and obesity are serious problems.

Who’s the culprit: Is it the extra sugar or salt?

Sugar which is a common food additive is good if consumed in moderation. However, children who consume a lot of sugary food like chocolates, biscuits, and cakes, besides sugary drinks may be taking in a lot of refined sugar in the form of ‘empty calories. Refined sugars enter the bloodstream quickly making children hyperactive. Hyperactivity in children results in increased movement, impulsive actions, and a shorter attention span. This can cause ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in children, leaving them unable to focus on anything.

High salt intake in processed food stimulates thirst, increases fluid intake, thereby increasing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. Thus, excess salt intake further increases the chances of obesity.

Facing the consequences of childhood obesity

Uncontrolled childhood obesity predisposes children to several health conditions at a very tender age. Effects of childhood obesity can be seen in the form of compromised immunity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, early heart disease, diabetes, bone problems, skin conditions, fungal infections, acne are some of them. They may also be prone to higher stress, and low self-esteem.

Diseases caused by childhood obesity

Childhood obesity can lead to several diseases in children that all need to be aware of, including:

Juvenile diabetes: The cases of type juvenile diabetes and type 2 diabetes in obese children and adolescents have been on the rise since the 21st century. It has become a common phenomenon in developed countries and it is growing in developing countries. As diabetes has no cure and can only be managed with lifestyle changes and medication, it becomes a serious condition to have since childhood.

Insulin resistance: Due to the risk of type pre-diabetes in obese children, insulin resistance is also increasing in children and young adults. Insulin resistance is a condition strongly associated with obesity. It is when your body cells and liver react poorly to insulin and can’t take up any glucose from your blood. It is a serious condition that can only be managed and not cured.

High blood pressure: Children with weight issues often tend to have a higher blood pressure than normal. High blood pressure is an indication that the body is under stress. If steps are not taken in the right direction, problems like high B.P will tag along for life and open the door to more threatening cardiovascular diseases.

High cholesterol: High cholesterol is a result of unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. Managing a child’s cholesterol levels is essential to shield them from other life-threatening conditions that come with it.

Cardiovascular disease: Due to increased cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight, the heart has to work extra hard to supply the body with oxygenated blood. This can take a toll on the child’s cardiac health and make them more susceptible to conditions like coronary heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms, congenital heart disease, cardiac arrest, heart failure, etc.

Breathing problems: Being overweight can subject the child to breathing problems like sleep apnea and asthma which can affect their daily life and performance. Early diagnosis and treatment is the best way to deal with breathing problems.

Thyroid problems: Hypothyroidism is associated with obesity. It is one of the causes of uncontrolled weight gain. Thyroid ailments are more prevalent in obese children as compared to children with normal BMIs.

Risk of gallstones: Obesity can also increase the risk of developing gallstones, which can cause abdominal pain and inflammation of the pancreas. The gallbladder may need to be removed surgically if this were to occur.

Heartburn/GERD: Increased fat in your child’s abdomen can increase the pressure on their abdomen. This can make the stomach acid, food, and liquid go back up into the esophagus. This can irritate the esophagus, bad breath, and even vomit.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): This disorder, which usually causes no symptoms causes fatty deposits to build up in the liver. It’s caused due to excessive fat consumption that is not metabolized well in the body. NAFLD can lead to scarring and liver damage.

How childhood obesity can take a toll on the mental health of children

  • They often face bullying and teasing at school or other places. This can leave mental scars on their minds which can lower their self-confidence and have trouble being sociable.
  • Overweight children often feel heartbroken because of the social stigma they face. The media constantly highlights how thin is desirable and this takes a toll on their mental health. These children are too young to contemplate their emotions and get overwhelmed.
  • Obese kids are more prone to being depressed because of the way they are treated at social places. Having trouble with self-image, having trouble making friends, not being selected at school or colleges, etc. can leave them battered in life.
  • The problems they face often lead to emotional eating. It is the practice of finding comfort in eating food. These foods can be anything, ranging from snacks to whole meals. Individuals who tend to emotionally eat often eat when they’re upset or undergoing negative emotions. This can lead to overeating which further increases their chances of having health issues.

Steps towards improvement

It is essential to snap out of this nightmare and pay attention to the health of our children. With basic exercise, healthy food, and some serious monitoring, results can be achieved. Early diagnosis of obesity is also an important factor.

The Body Mass Index is calculated by dividing an individual’s weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters. BMI (Body mass index) serves as an early screening tool that helps identify childhood obesity. It is evaluated using age- and gender-specific charts that take into account the different growth patterns for both boys and girls. This is because weight and fat content differs amongst boys and girls and changes with age.

Children over age 2, or teens whose BMI is:

  • Less than the 5th percentile – underweight.
  • Between the 5th percentile and less than the 85th percentile – healthy/normal weight.
  • In the 85th percentile to less than the 95th percentile – overweight.
  • Equal to, or greater than the 95th percentile -obese
Weight Status Category  Percentile Range 
Underweight  Less than the 5th percentile 
Healthy Weight  5th percentile to less than the 85th percentile 
Overweight  85th to less than the 95th percentile 
Obesity  Equal to or greater than the 95th percentile 

Early screening for weight will help prevent the progression of childhood obesity and enable parents to take the necessary corrective steps to restore healthy dietary habits, normal BMI, and ideal weight for their children.

Source for above images: About Child & Teen BMI at https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/childrens_bmi/about_childrens_bmi.html accessed on 11-11-2021 

References:

Ma Y, et al. High salt intake: an independent risk factor for obesity?. Hypertension. 2015 Oct;66(4):843-9.

Obesity and overweight Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight Accessed on 18th August 2021

Atlas of Childhood Obesity. October 2019. World Obesity Federation. http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/wof-files/11996_Childhood_Obesity_Atlas_Report_ART_V2.pdf

Sugar Available at https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/sugar#sugar-in-moderation Accessed on 18th August 2021

Hyperactivity and sugar Available at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002426.htm Accessed on 18th August 2021

BMI in children Available at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/losing-weight/bmi-in-children Accessed on 18th August 2021

Pediatric GI – Childhood Obesity Available at https://gi.org/topics/pediatric-gi-childhood-obesity/ Accessed on 20 August 2021