Childhood Obesity: Causes, Consequences & Prevention Measures


While past generations spent countless hours playing outside, many parents are concerned that today’s kids don’t get out enough. The unfortunate truth is that childhood obesity statistics indicate that children today are not eating right and not getting adequate exercise, putting them at risk for a host of health issues throughout their lives.

Childhood obesity causes range from malnutrition to a genetic predisposition, making it difficult to propose comprehensive solutions to the problem. However, we can’t argue with facts that show childhood obesity rates are rising. Here we’ll discuss the facts surrounding childhood obesity rates, the causes, consequences, and potential solutions.

Childhood Obesity Rates

Worldwide, there were nearly 41 million infants and young children who were overweight in 2016. This figure comes from the World Health Organization, who notes that even in developing countries, the rate of childhood obesity is climbing. Further, obesity rates are higher in developing countries than elsewhere in the world.

Childhood Obesity in AmericaChildhood Obesity

The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health reported that the lowest rate of childhood obesity in America was 19.2 percent. Our country’s highest was at 37.7 percent in the state of Tennessee.

High school students in the US reported drinking soda at least once a day, according to a 2015 survey. Other troubling statistics highlight teens who reported not eating fruits and vegetables daily and even skipped breakfast.

These unhealthy habits contribute to the United States’ abysmal childhood obesity statistics, but such habits start earlier than kids’ high school years. Unfortunately, many children start life out with improper nutrition, setting them up for health issues later in life.

Eating Habits Are a Critical Factor

Many parents blame modern culture’s fascination with technology for kids’ dedication to indoor activities over getting active outdoors, but eating habits play a primary role in kids’ development. Psych Central reported on a Norwegian study which explored the factors that influence obesity.

The study looked at physical activity levels, time spent watching television, and appetite traits to define the relationship between children’s body mass index (BMI) numbers. The results were surprising, indicating that physical activity and TV viewing had less of an impact on BMI than eating behaviors.

Researchers explained that children who ate when they saw or smelled food, rather than seeking it out when they felt hungry, had higher BMIs than children with the opposite tendencies. The study also asked parents a series of questions about their children’s eating habits, such as whether they asked for more food when they were full, or whether they showed excitement about eating.

Kids with this emotional and situational attachment to food seem to ignore their bodies’ signals of fullness. Researchers suggest that parents regulate kids’ food intake to model proper serving sizes and curb overeating before it becomes an ingrained habit.

5 Consequences of Childhood Obesitychild obesity consequences

Being overweight is a health problem because it often keeps people from participating in physical activities. But childhood obesity causes a slew of health problems in children that may set in early and continue to follow them throughout their lives.

We know that carrying extra weight on one’s frame is unhealthy for bones, joints, and the cardiovascular system. But some specific diseases and conditions result from children becoming obese.

1. Cardiovascular Disease

The risk of heart disease is so severe with obesity that the American Heart Association (AMA) recommends that patients who are obese participate in medically-supervised weight loss programs. Carrying extra weight puts a strain on the heart, making it harder for the body to circulate blood.

Further, obesity can raise cholesterol levels. High cholesterol can influence heart disease and increase blood pressure. Fortunately for children dealing with obesity, losing weight can reduce or eliminate these risks, which is not the case for adults who experience heart disease from years of unhealthy habits.

2. Insulin Resistance & Diabetes

Insulin resistance is often a precursor to diabetes and causes a person’s cells to become immune to normal insulin secretion from the pancreas. This means the body is making more insulin, but the cells are not using it.

If patients fail to address insulin resistance, they can develop full-blown diabetes. Diabetes is a condition in which the body cannot produce its own insulin or does not respond to it. That means the body can’t correctly process carbohydrates, resulting in high levels of glucose in the blood and urine.

There are two types of diabetes, but children with childhood obesity without a previous diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes will receive a diagnosis of Type 2. Type 2 diabetes can develop at any age, although it most often affects adults, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIH).

If children who are overweight develop Type 2 diabetes, that puts them at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, eye problems, dental disease, nerve damage, and foot problems. All of these are conditions that adults with Type 2 diabetes can also have.

3. Musculoskeletal Disorders

obesity consequences

Musculoskeletal disorders can interfere with children’s bone and growth function, causing pain and impeding everyday activities. As the Bone and Joint Initiative USA (USBJI) explains, extra weight on a child’s frame adds to the stress their bones and joints experience.

Parents may not recognize the potential for damage to their children’s skeletal systems since many of the health effects of obesity manifest in more visible ways. But orthopedic surgeons point out that because children are doing so much growth in their formative years, additional weight can stress their bodies and cause disability. In some cases, kids even need surgery to correct the issues that obesity causes.

Preventing or even addressing childhood obesity early on can help kids avoid severe health impacts that require surgery and rehabilitative treatment. Keeping tabs on kids’ development can also prevent disability later in life, such as immobility due to bone and joint damage.

[Related: Child Bowlegs and Knock-Knees]

4. Cancer

Observational studies have established a link between obesity and cancer risk, the National Cancer Institute says, although it’s difficult to interpret the data accurately. There are more differences between people than their overabundance or lack of body fat, but still, evidence shows that higher amounts of body fat relate to higher instances of cancers.

Among the cancers that appear in people with higher amounts of body fat are:

·         endometrial cancer

·         esophageal adenocarcinoma (throat cancer)

·         gastric cardia (stomach cancer)

·         liver cancer

·         kidney cancer

·         multiple myeloma

·         meningioma (a slow-growing brain tumor)

·         pancreatic cancer

·         colorectal cancer

·         gallbladder cancer

·         breast cancer

·         ovarian cancer

·         thyroid cancer

So far, studies suggest a handful of ways that obesity increases the odds of people developing cancer. One is that people who are obese can have chronic low-level inflammation, which breaks down the body’s DNA over time. Another possibility is that since fat tissue produces excess estrogen, which is a primary factor in breast, endometrial, ovarian, and other cancers.

The abundance of insulin in people who are overweight is another risk factor for cancer growth. Overall, people who are obese also have increased difficulty recovering from cancer as well, making treatment and rehabilitation more difficult.

However, further research is still needed to understand the effects that obesity has on cancer risk thoroughly, and there is no confirmation that childhood obesity directly causes any cancer.

5. Mental Health Challengeschildhood overweight

Children who are obese may also face ostracism from peers due to their size. While this does not directly correlate to a specific condition, it may influence children’s perceptions of themselves, their self-esteem, and their mental health.

A 2017 article from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) delves into the topic of childhood obesity and the stigma that comes with it. The authors elaborate that children who experience weight-based teasing and bullying have higher odds of dealing with emotional and psychological consequences.

Evidence shows that children with obesity are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and poor body image. Along with depression and anxiety comes the potential for children to self-harm or exhibit suicidal behaviors.

Children on the receiving end of teasing about their weight tend to perform worse academically, the AAP article points out, and can even cause children to shut down at school and in social situations. Other studies see a correlation between children who have experienced teasing about their weight and their future propensity toward unhealthy eating habits such as binging and emotional eating.

At the same time, teasing about weight discourages kids from participating in physical activities, student surveys suggest, which goes along with children who are overweight’s avoidance of social situations and activities. Also, as many as 85 percent of high school students responded that they had witnessed others teasing their peers for their weight.

[Relevance: Disability in Children]

7 Childhood Obesity Prevention Measures

Modeling positive behaviors about food, guiding kids to appropriate serving sizes, and encouraging kids to stop eating when they feel full are all proactive steps parents can take to avoid eating issues later in life. But beyond these general guidelines, what can families do to ensure their children grow up healthy?

The first step is becoming proactive toward the entire family’s health. Here are impactful childhood obesity prevention tips that parents can implement immediately.

1. Feeding BabiesChildhood Obesity Prevention Measures

Whether parents are expecting or already tending to a newborn, there are actions they can take to secure a healthy future for their child. Beginning with infant feeding habits, parents can set their kids up to make healthy food and lifestyle choices.

Breastfeeding in Infancy

The WHO recommends exclusively breastfeeding infants from birth to at least six months old. Because breastmilk provides the precise nutrition infants need, it’s easier for them to self-regulate than if they receive bottles of formula.

At an early age, babies know to stop eating when they are full, setting them up to recognize signs of fullness later in life. This built-in mechanism prevents overeating and eating when they are not hungry. Even adults tend to overeat when food, mainly junk food, is available. Therefore, encouraging healthy habits in infancy can have a significant impact on kids’ and teens’ habits later in life.

Breastfeeding in Toddlerhood

Many newborns start out nursing but later receive formula. However, WHO does not recommend that mothers stop breastfeeding at six months of age. In addition to starting solid foods when developmentally appropriate, WHO suggests that toddlers continue to breastfeed up to two years of age and even farther.

The benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy, according to the Mayo Clinic, go beyond mother-baby bonding. In fact, benefits to both baby and mother support breastfeeding for as long as the duo desires.

For baby, benefits of extended breastfeeding include a balanced nutritional profile that changes based on baby’s biological needs. Babies also receive an immunity boost from mom’s milk, as breastmilk contains cells, hormones, and antibodies that cater to his or her immune system. Finally, WHO states, breastfed infants may have better overall health.

2. Don’t Skip BreakfastChild Obesity Prevention Measure

As adults, it’s easy to overlook breakfast as most families are in a rush in the morning. Many parents are lucky if they manage to drink a cup of coffee before it goes cold. But parents need a nourishing breakfast just as much as their children do, all weight issues aside.

WebMD highlights the importance of taking the time to eat a nutritious breakfast each day. Eating breakfast helps jump-start your metabolism, delivering nutrients and calories so that your body can glean the glucose it needs to make your body function.

Skipping breakfast can make you feel sluggish, causing you to overeat later in the day to compensate. Kids are susceptible to this bad habit, too, so making time for breakfast together each day can help everyone in the house to feel more energized and ready for their day.

Also, WebMD notes that researchers have found that adults who consistently eat breakfast are slimmer than those who don’t. While there could be many explanations for this correlation, eating food high in protein and fiber can help keep you full. That means less snacking and therefore fewer calories throughout the day.

Kids need continuous and sufficient nutrition throughout the day, and they can’t often consume everything they need in the last two meals of the day. Like the studies that found adults who eat breakfast are slimmer, other evidence shows that teens who eat breakfast most days have a lower BMI than teens who don’t.

Aim for even a small breakfast that combines complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat for both you and your kids, and start your day off without a sugar crash or craving that follows you until lunchtime.

3. Dine Together as a Family

If you’re wondering how to develop healthful habits for the whole family, the key may lie in your family’s mealtimes.

As Huffington Post reported, eating dinner together as a family has more benefits than monitoring the whole family’s nutrition. Reports show that kids who eat dinner with their parents at least five times a week have a lower risk of developing weight and eating problems. They also tend to do better in school than kids who eat alone.

Further, children who spend mealtimes with their families are less likely to have substance or alcohol abuse issues. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon may lie in families’ tendencies to share more and maintain bonds when dining together.

Preparing meals together is another way families can spend time together while working toward creating a healthy plate. It also helps kids to appreciate where food comes from and acknowledge the effort it takes to prepare healthy meals.

4. Make Healthier ChoicesChildhood Obesity Prevention Measure

As the WHO explains, food preferences become cemented early in life. If babies eat foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt in infancy, that contributes to their chances of becoming obese later. Ideally, parents should offer babies who are ready for table food a selection of healthy choices.

While most experts agree that pureed baby food isn’t harmful to infants, avoiding sugary cereals, puff snacks, and other packaged foods can help prevent little ones from developing a taste for unhealthy food. Giving babies fresh fruits and soft steamed vegetables is nutritionally superior to boxed or prepackaged options.

For older children who have already developed unhealthy habits, encouraging them to participate in meal planning and choosing fruits and vegetables can help support a lifestyle change. Involving kids in the hands-on aspects of preparing family meals not only offers parents and kids quality time together, but it helps the whole family to try new foods that are healthy, too.

Challenge kids to try something new, whether it’s zucchini noodles in place of wheat ones or a side salad instead of fried foods. Consistently offering healthier alternatives is a simple way for parents to approach kids’ eating habits without a struggle.

5. Make Moving Part of Family Time

Starting your child’s life with a healthy perspective on food and nutrition can potentially prevent them from becoming obese. However, for children who have already developed troubling symptoms of obesity, parents have more work to do to help them.

While diet is often the primary culprit when it comes to challenges with weight and obesity, kids’ activity levels are a critical factor, too. With so much technology in their lives, kids may prefer to stay indoors rather than get outside and play actively.

Parents who notice weight issues with their kids can encourage the whole family to talk a walk after dinner, play a game of basketball in the driveway, or just kick a ball back and forth while chatting about the events of their daily lives.

6. Show Compassion

Even younger children may notice that they are becoming overweight, and they can feel self-conscious about it. Bullying is an issue for many children, and many victims of bullying are those who are overweight or otherwise differ in appearance from their peers.

One review highlighted the stigmatization of people with obesity and the fact that children who are obese are more likely to experience social isolation, teasing, and bullying. The review also referenced a study which found that children who are obese reported quality-of-life scores that were worse than children their same age who were suffering from cancer.

So how can parents help their overweight child battle obesity and improve their quality of life? Maintaining a compassionate attitude without blame and finger-pointing is crucial. Model the habits that you want your child to keep and work together toward healthier choices and a more active lifestyle.

Involving your child’s school is another way to show support and help reduce and prevent bullying. Studies have shown that anti-bullying programs and inclusion policies help schools reduce instances of harassment, making school a safer place for kids of all sizes and abilities.

Ultimately, maintaining open communication with your child can help them manage their emotions more effectively. Shaming or placing blame on a child who is already dealing with significant emotional and physical challenges doesn’t help. A child in a health crisis needs support more than they need a lecture about eating too much junk food.

7. Use the Right WordsKids Obesity Prevention Measures

The AAP article which explored the impact of obesity on children and teens’ mental health suggests being cognizant of your word choice when discussing weight topics with your children. Parents could inadvertently harm their children’s self-esteem by using insensitive language, which is not helpful for improving kids’ overall health.

The article suggests using terms like “weight” and “body mass index” rather than “obese” and “weight problem” to avoid inducing feelings of shame and sadness in kids. Further, using people-first language, as advocates for people with disabilities prefer, goes a step further in defining people based on their attributes and not their physical appearance or capabilities.

Therefore, using people-first language means that we refer to a child as someone “with obesity” rather than an “obese” person. However, language alone cannot reverse the effects of bullying or teasing about a child’s weight.

Professionals suggest providing counseling for children to support them and their families in making healthy life changes. Your child’s pediatrician may recommend dieting or increased exercise, but it’s essential to address the emotional connections to the condition of childhood obesity.

Treating the whole child rather than their diagnosis or symptoms helps maintain their dignity and self-worth, two attributes that will help them work toward a healthier and happier future.


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