The prevalence of childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels both in developed and developing countries. It is imperative to know that this is a serious medical problem affecting approximately 14.4 million children in India alone. 

Children who gain extra weight are at risk of health problems that have been considered adult problems in the past such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Not only does obesity affect physical health, but also mental health as these kids often tend to develop poor self-esteem and depression over time.

Let’s read more about childhood obesity. 

What is Childhood Obesity?

In contrast to overweight, defined as BMI (body mass index, a measure of weight for height) between 85 and 95th percentile, obesity is defined as being at or above 95th percentile for that age and gender.

What is The Prevalence of Childhood Obesity?

According to an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) study, the prevalence of childhood obesity was about 8% and overweight rates were around two times higher standing at 17.1%. The total prevalence of overweight and obesity has shot up to 40% in recent times according to a few studies.

What Are The Causes of Childhood Obesity & Overweight?

In general, obesity and being overweight are assumed to be a result of increased caloric and fat intake. However, it is a disorder with multiple causative factors such as:

  • Diet: Consumption of a high-energy/high-fat diet, sweetened beverages, increased portion size, convenience foods, canned and salty snacks, etc.

  • Family History: Parental obesity or history of obesity/overweight in the family.

  • Sedentary Lifestyle: In recent times, there has been a steady decline in physical activity amongst children, which has played a major role in the rising rates of childhood obesity and overweight. The problem is also exacerbated by the excessive amount of time spent watching television, which has targeted ads promoting unhealthy foods.

  • Psychological Causes: Parental, personal or family pressure and stress can increase a child’s risk of obesity as some children develop overeating or binge eating as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, negative emotions, depression, etc. 

  • Medical Conditions: Maternal medical conditions such as gestational diabetes mellitus, weight gain during pregnancy, hypertension, and lifestyle habits such as smoking during pregnancy can cumulatively lead to early-onset obesity in toddlers.

  • Genetics: Some children are at a greater risk for obesity due to single-gene mutations linked to obesity or genetic disorders such as Prader-Willi syndrome, which is the most common genetic cause of severe and life-threatening childhood obesity.

 What Are The Implications of Childhood Obesity?

  • Heart Disease: High levels of cholesterol can lead to dyslipidemia and hypertension, which are known to increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Endocrine Disorders: Children who are overweight or obese are likely to develop conditions such as Type II Diabetes Mellitus, hypothyroidism, metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), etc. However, these are reversible with dietary and lifestyle modifications.
  • Gastro-Intestinal Issues: Increased intake of fatty food can cause gallstones and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD occurs due to the deposition of excess fat within the liver leading to liver scarring and damage, subsequently.
  • Musculoskeletal Problems: Overweight or obese children are more prone to developing joint pain (knees, hips, and spine) due to the stress caused by weight gain. Increased risk of fractures is another problem.
  • Neurological Problems: A few studies have shown a strong link between childhood obesity and brain (prefrontal cortex) development. Obese or overweight children often tend to have poor decision-making and problem-solving skills. 
  • Respiratory Problems: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and bronchial asthma are very common too.

Is Childhood Obesity Preventable?

Yes, childhood obesity can and must be prevented, especially since treating obesity is extremely difficult.

Simple strategies to prevent obesity in children are:

  • Increase physical activity: Use words such as ‘activity’ instead of exercise or workout to draw their attention or keep them interested. A minimum of one hour of exercise daily is recommended to keep your child healthy. This could also be your chance to bond with your child.

  • Make dietary modifications: Limit high-energy intake from total fats and sugars. Add fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole-grain products to your child’s diet. Swap their favourites with healthier options. For example, air-popped popcorn without butter instead of the microwave or movie-theatre popcorn.

  • Set a good example as parents: Make healthy eating and regular exercise a family affair as children often learn from their parents or their siblings.

  • Use alternative positive-reinforcement strategies: Avoid rewarding them with candies or baked sugar foods. Instead, try clapping hands and hugging them, offering special activities (eg: reading a book together, playing a game they like, etc.), and sharing their achievements with others. Let them know how proud you are of them.

  • Limit screen time: Avoid gadgets such as TV, mobile phones, laptops, especially during their mealtime. Set a daily time limit for screen time.

 You should not get discouraged if these strategies do not work right away. It takes multiple attempts and exposure to new foods for your children to acquire a taste for healthy food and a healthier lifestyle.

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