Childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels in developed as well as in developing countries. Overweight and obesity in childhood are known to have a significant impact on both physical and psychological health. Overweight (extra or excessive weight) and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and are more likely to develop non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. 

Childhood obesity is a complex health issue. It occurs when a child is well above the normal or healthy weight for his or her age and height. In other words, childhood obesity is a condition where excess body fat negatively affects the overall well-being of a child. 

How Childhood Obesity and Body Mass Index (BMI) are related?

While speaking of childhood obesity, it is important to also understand the concept of BMI. BMI is a measure of body fat based on the height and weight of a person. It is different for men and women. It is calculated as below:

BMI= m/h2 

Where BMI=Body mass index ; m=mass (in kilograms); h=height (in meters)

In children, BMI is used to find out if your child is underweight, of a healthy weight, overweight, or obese. 

  • A child whose BMI is between the 5th percentile to 85th percentile is in the healthy weight range.

  • Children who measure at the 85th to 94th percentiles are considered overweight, because of excess body fat or high lean body mass. 

  • A child with a BMI below the 5th percentile is considered underweight.

With 14.4 million obese children, India has the second-highest number of obese children in the world, next to China. As parents, it is important for you to understand what are the causes of childhood obesity, tips for its management, and prevention.

Causes of Childhood Obesity 

It is widely accepted that an increase in weight results from an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure. Child risk factors for obesity include dietary intake, minimum or no physical activity, and sedentary behavior. The impact of such risk factors is moderated by factors such as age, gender, and genetic make-up of your child.

1. Family factors (including parenting style), characteristics, and habits play an important role.

  • It is seen that authoritative parenting styles tend to result in children who are happy, capable, physically active, and who eat healthy food. Authoritative parents have high expectations for their children, and they give their kids only those resources and support that are required for their children to succeed.

  • Also, authoritative parents do not fulfill any unreasonable demands of their kids and hence kids are mostly kept away from junk and high-calorie foods. Their kids are more active and thus, the risk of childhood obesity decreases in such children.

  • Children learn by modeling parents’ and peers’ preferences, intake, and willingness to try new foods. Availability of, and repeated exposure to, healthy foods is key to developing preferences for healthy foods. 

  • Mealtime structure is important with evidence suggesting that families who eat together consume more healthy foods. Furthermore, eating out or watching TV while eating is associated with a higher intake of fat, resulting in obesity in children.

  • Kids are more likely to be active if their parents and families are active. Instilling an active lifestyle has a direct impact on your child’s weight and BMI. Active kids are happy, healthy, fall asleep faster, and energized at all times.

2. Environmental factors such as school policies, demographics, and parents’ work-related demands further influence eating and activity behaviors. 

  • Serving or allowing healthy choices in the lunchroom, limiting availability and marketing of unhealthful foods and sugary drinks, and making water available to students, throughout the day are some of the ways that schools can help prevent childhood obesity.

  • Studies suggest that children with working mothers have higher BMI due to fewer or proper meals. If parents have to meet high work-related demands, they have a lesser amount of time to concentrate on their children. Serving foods that are less in nutrition and high in calories, due to a lack of time results in childhood obesity in children.

3. Genetics is one of the biggest factors examined as a cause of obesity. Some studies have found that BMI is 25–40% heritable. The children of obese parents are most likely to be obese themselves. However, genetic susceptibility often needs to be coupled with contributing environmental and behavioral factors such as food preferences, body type, and activity levels, in obesity.

4. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) has also been studied as a possible cause of obesity. Basal metabolic rate, or metabolism, is the body's expenditure of energy for routine functions, while your body is at rest. 

Adults and children with lower basal metabolic rates are more prone to obesity.

5. Excessive consumption of fast food, sugary beverages, and snacks. Increased fast food consumption has been linked to obesity in recent years. Many families, especially those with two parents working outside the home, opt for these places as they are often favored by their children and are both convenient and inexpensive. The same is with salty, processed, and high-calorie snacks. 

Snacks that children enjoy the most include foods such as chips, baked goods, and candy. 

6. Portion sizes have increased drastically in the past decade. Consuming large portions, in addition to frequent snacking on highly caloric foods, contribute to an excessive caloric intake. This energy imbalance can cause weight gain, and consequently obesity in children.

7. Sedentary lifestyle is most linked to childhood obesity. Studies claim that each additional hour of television per day increased the prevalence of obesity in children, by 2%. The increased amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors has decreased the amount of time spent in physical activity. 

Research indicates that the number of hours children spend watching TV correlates with their consumption of the most advertised goods, including sweetened cereals, sweets, sweetened beverages, and salty snacks.

8. Eating disorders result in childhood obesity, especially in girls. A number of studies have shown a higher prevalence of eating-related pathology (mental disorders defined by abnormal eating habits) in obese children/youth.

Prevention and Management of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity can profoundly affect children's physical health, social, and emotional well-being. It is also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child. Obesity has been described as being “one of the most stigmatizing and least socially acceptable conditions in childhood.” Overweight and obese children are often teased and/or bullied for their weight. They also face numerous other hardships including negative stereotypes, discrimination, and social marginalization.

1. Healthy eating and nutritious choices for obese children. Changing the eating habits of obese children is absolutely essential. Parental influence shapes your child’s eating patterns. 

  • Start your nutrition overhaul by limiting sweets and soft drinks in your home.  

  • Cut back on your fast food consumption and make a conscious effort to cook more. 

  • Preparing a meal and eating together is not only healthy in a nutritional sense, but it’s also an excellent way to sneak in some family time. 

  • Center your meals and snacks around fresh foods instead of processed items, baked goods, or salty snacks. 

  • Try fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, such as chicken and fish, whole grains, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-grain bread, low-fat dairy products, including skim milk, low-fat plain yogurt, and low-fat cheese.

Chances are good that your overweight or obese child will drop some weight as they transition to a healthier way of eating. Consult your pediatrician if weight loss doesn’t occur. You may need additional help from a nutritionist or dietitian. 

2. Increase your child’s level of physical activity to help them shed weight safely. Use the word “activity” instead of “exercise” or “workout” to keep them interested. 

  • Playing hopscotch outside, for example, maybe more appealing to a 7-year-old than jogging around the block. 

  • Consider encouraging your child to try a sport for which they’ve expressed an interest at. 

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children get at least one hour’s worth of exercise daily to remain healthy.

3. Find activities the entire family can enjoy together. This is not only a great way to bond, but it also helps your child learn by example. 

  • Hiking, swimming, or even playing tag can help your child get active and start on the path to a healthier weight. 

  • Be sure to vary activities to prevent boredom.

4. Limit your child’s screen time. Kids who spend several hours a day watching television, playing computer games, and using their smartphones or other devices are more likely to be overweight. Be sure to set a limit on their daily screen time.                                                       

To conclude, the growing issue of childhood obesity can be slowed, if society focuses on the causes. There are many components that play into childhood obesity, some being more crucial than others. If parents enforce a healthier lifestyle at home, many obesity problems could be avoided. What children learn at home about eating healthy, exercising, and making the right nutritional choices will eventually spill over into other aspects of their life.

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.