Obesity or overweight occurs when there is an imbalance between caloric intake and the energy burnt. The prevalence of childhood obesity has been on the increase in the last decade. In England, the data from the National Child Measurement Programme show that at the start of primary school almost 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese and this increases to 1 in 3 at the start of secondary school.
The rise in prevalence of childhood obesity can be attributed to a multitude of factors ranging from dietary, environmental, lifestyle preferences to socio-economic causes. The diet constitutes an important role in maintaining a healthy weight in children. While consuming a balanced and nutritious diet is crucial for the general growth and development in children, a calorie-dense diet (high refined sugar and/or fat) but poor in nutrition contributes to the increase in body fat leading to obesity. The easy availability of “junk food” from an increasing number of fast-food outlets, consumption of sugary drinks, snack foods and the drastic increase in portion sizes have contributed to the rising prevalence in childhood obesity.
The environment around us and the children have a major influence on the lifestyle choices. The wide accessibility and inexpensive nature of fast foods is often seen as an easier option when compared to healthy/fresh foods which on many occasions are more expensive. The lifestyle in general has become much more sedentary when compared to the previous generations. Television viewing and video gaming has increased in children and adolescents contributing to an increase in their sedentary time. Non-academic screen time has drastically increased in recent years which has a direct effect on decreasing the amount of physical activity every day and overtime has a cumulative effect on weight gain. Social deprivation also has a significant role in the increase of childhood obesity which is more prevalent in deprived areas when compared to affluent regions. The economic disparity between the affluent and deprived societies also has an impact on the increase in childhood obesity.
The consequences of childhood obesity can be profound on both the physical and mental well-being of the child/young person. Obese/overweight children are more likely to become obese/overweight adults. Being overweight or obese increases the risks of many diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, fatty liver, sleep apnoea, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and doubles the risk of dying prematurely. Obesity is also associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. Besides physical health, childhood obesity can have a negative impact on mental health with increase in the incidence of anxiety, stress and depression in adolescents and children.
There is often a stigma associated with obesity as children and young people many a time report to have been teased or bullied about their weight. These negative social problems contribute to low self-esteem affecting the confidence of children and young people and a negative body image can in turn affect their academic performance. Thus, the effects of obesity can be devastating to children/young people and their families. However most of the physical health conditions that are associated with childhood obesity are preventable and they often tend to resolve when the child/adolescent reaches a healthy weight.
Childhood obesity is therefore a complex condition that involves an interplay of various factors at different levels. The management of childhood obesity thus requires unpicking of these various factors with the help of a professional multi-disciplinary team which might include the physician, dietician, psychologist, exercise physiologist and a family support worker.
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Dr Dinesh Giri
Endocrinology & Obesity
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