The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define overweight as having excess body weight for a particular height, whereas obesity is defined as having excess body fat. The best measure for these conditions is an individual’s BMI, or body mass index. These conditions are a result of ‘caloric imbalance’, or expending too few calories for the amount consumed. Childhood obesity is affected by a number of genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.
Prevalence of Childhood Obesity
The rate of childhood obesity in the United States is very high, especially among certain racial, ethnic, and income-level groupings.
5 Alarming Childhood Obesity Statistics:
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of obese children in the United States increased from 7% in 1980 to almost 18% in 2010. Over the same period, the percentage of adolescents who were obese increased from 5% to 18%.
- More than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2010.
- Individuals with childhood obesity are more likely to have conditions that lead to cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. As such, a study of 5 to 17 year olds found that 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for heart disease.
- American Indian and Alaskan Native, and Hispanic children aged 2 to 4 years have the highest rates of obesity, with 20.7% and 17.9% respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Of all low income, preschool-aged children 1 in 7 are obese, according to data gathered by the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
Obesity is caused by weight gain. When children eat more than their bodies need for the time being, they automatically store the excess calories in fat cells for use later. If the stored energy isn’t used they will develop more fat cells, which lead to obesity.
There are four main contributing factors to the development of childhood obesity, though no single cause of the condition is known and there is thought to be several influencing factors. The main factors are genetics, behavior, environment, and socio-economic demographics, according to the Colorado State University.
- Genetics: Obesity has been shown to run in families, which strongly suggests a genetic link. There are likely to be many genes involved in the processes that make and individual susceptible to excess body weight. As well, genetic factors likely interact with environmental and behavioral factors greatly rather than mostly acting on their own.
- Behavior: There are several different behavioral factors that contribute to the energy and calorie imbalance that leads to obesity.
- Nutrition and what they eat: Food that is high in calories, sugars, and fats is marketed to children, is convenient, and is often easily available. Children are eating less meals at home, and portion sizes are larger.
- Physical activity: Lack of physical activity contributes to childhood obesity, and can happen for a variety of reasons. Some children live in areas where there are no safe parks or recreation centers to go to, and popular recreational activities for children are becoming less and less physical.
- Screen time: Watching TV, playing video games, and computer activity are more popular than ever among children and these activities promote sedentary, inactive behavior. Time spent in front of screens means time spent not being active.
- Environment: Home, school, and community environments all affect how a child grows and develops, and what habits they grow accustomed to. All of these environments have a role in determining a child’s diet and physical activity.
- Socio-economic demographics: Certain populations are more at-risk for developing obesity. Low-income families, for example, have barriers to maintaining healthy lifestyles due to lack of access to proper foods, lack of safe places for physical activity, and lack of choices in food. Some minority ethnic groups, such as Hispanics, are statistically more likely to be affected by childhood obesity.
Health Effects of Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity puts children at a risk for a variety of physical and psychological health consequences. One of these is the likelihood of becoming obese adults. According to the University of Colorado, a study of obese or overweight children and adolescents 10 to 15 years old found that 80 percent were obese at 25 years old. Another study found that out of all obese adults, 25 percent were either overweight or obese as children. Obesity in adulthood, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, arthritis, and a general poor health status.
The main health complications related to childhood obesity are:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- High levels of blood lipids
- Type 2 diabetes
- Sleep apnea
- Liver damage
The first three on this list are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. In addition to these health risks, the Colorado State University reports that children with obesity are at a high risk for psychological and emotional consequences as they are more likely to be bullied, have low self-esteem and low body image which can lead to depression and other conditions.
Treatment Options at Childhood Obesity Rehab Centers
If you suspect that your child is obese or overweight, there are several things you can do to help them reach a healthier weight. The first step will be diagnosing the problem. To do this, a health care provider will provide a physical exam for the child in question and will ask questions about their lifestyle including medical history, eating habits, and exercise routine. The childhood obesity rehab center may perform blood tests to look into other causes of weight gain such as thyroid or endocrine problems. Their BMI will be determined, and from all of these factors a diagnosis will be made. According to the US National Library of Medicine, it is recommended that children are screened for obesity at age 6.
Once a child is diagnosed with childhood obesity the doctor will help set goals for weight loss, give recommendations for getting there, and will help with the monitoring and support. The US National Library of Medicine recommends getting the whole family into a weight loss plan to help support the child and to help the child truly integrate into healthy lifestyle habits. The Penn State University College of Health and Human Development promotes the reduction of screen time, encouraging of physical activity, and promoting healthy sleep as ways to help treat childhood obesity.
According to the University of Minnesota treatment for childhood obesity will depend also on the child’s age and existing conditions. Depending on their age, treatment will focus on weight maintenance rather than loss because the child is likely still growing. As they grow they will add inches in high, not pounds, and their BMI for age will drop into a healthier range. Treatment at childhood obesity rehab centers may include a physician, counselor, dietician, and/or a physical therapist depending on the existence of other physical and psychological conditions. For example, if the child has feelings of depression or social anxiety they will likely also see a counselor who will help treat these conditions.
How Families Can Help Children Suffering from Childhood Obesity
It can be tough for children suffering from childhood obesity to feel good about themselves, and to not feel alone. While dealing with their condition they will need the care and support of their family. As well, it is not common for children to make their own food or to even be much in control of their food. This makes it extremely important for their caregiver to be a part of their recovery process.
The National Institute of Health outlined some recommendations for encouraging healthy eating:
- Serve more fruits and vegetables
- Keep fewer soft drinks and high-fat, high-calorie snack foods around the house
- Make sure your child eats breakfast every day
- Eat fast food less often
- Do not use food as a reward
- Encourage physical activity each day