Even if you weren’t aware of the fact that there is a childhood obesity epidemic, you certainly can look around and see for yourself. In the 1960’s in the United States, the percentage of obese children was five percent of the population. Today, that number is a staggering 17 percent of the population. And nearly one-third of the childhood population is overweight. The consequences of childhood overweight and obesity include health issues and social/emotional costs. The outward appearance of overweight and obese children is enough of a tragedy, but what is going on inside of their bodies is now becoming a health catastrophe.
When most of us hear the words “heart disease,” “stroke,” “type 2 diabetes,” we tend to associate them with people over 50, if not older. There was a time when type 2 diabetes was referred to as “mature onset diabetes” because it only occurred in older individuals. But much to everyone’s surprise, we are seeing these “adult” diseases manifesting themselves in children. The situation is now so pronounced, that pediatricians have had to relearn about adult diseases manifesting themselves in children. This is all very frightening, and yet we all end up with heartache after these illnesses set in.
What is causing childhood obesity to manifest itself in ways not seen by previous generations? Although there are those who like to blame genes, what has happened over the last generation has happened too quickly to be blamed on some genetic mutation. We must look at the way we live to get the answers: How do we get to work or school? What, and how much, are we eating for meals and snacks? While genetic factors certainly put some children at higher risk than others for these diseases, the widening of our waistlines, adults and children alike, comes down to lifestyle and habits.
A study issued this year by Halfon, Larson and Slusser shows that in low-income families, obesity is 2.5 times higher than middle-income families. Education of the parents, and marital status also plays a role according to the same study. Children raised by a single parent, or those who have a high-school education or less are also more likely to be obese. Multiple studies show that the risk of childhood obesity begins right from birth, so early intervention in the home becomes crucial.
The concerns for children who are overweight are not just aesthetic. There isn’t one major organ of the body which isn’t affected. Complications include asthma, sleep apnea, gallstones, liver dysfunction, bone fractures and girls can become infertile. Really, all of the complications of adult obesity, like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and metabolic syndrome are present in obese children. A recent study in the Netherlands found two-thirds of obese children aged 2-18 had one or more of the following cardiovascular risk factors:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol, with high LDL and low HDL
- High triglycerides
- High fasting glucose
- Type 2 diabetes
Confirming this data, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that half of overweight teenagers and two-thirds of obese teens have a least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Type 2 diabetes in children has skyrocketed of the past 15 years. With the current trend, children who were born in the year 2000 have about a 35 percent chance of developing diabetes in their lifetime.
Aside from the physical aspect of obesity, even the most resilient and motivated children suffer social consequences. Obese children are more likely to be teased, bullied and socially isolated than normal weight children. A review of 131 research articles evaluating the association of overweight children, mental health and wellness, found increased instances of depression and anxiety along with low self-esteem. In addition, disordered and unhealthy eating are common.
The economic burden of childhood obesity is also pronounced. It effects the family and the economic burden of society has a whole. From 1979-1999, hospital costs related to child and adolescent obesity was about $127 million, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta. By 2009, the estimate increased to $14.1 billion for the same thing.
The need for change is obvious, but what is it we need to do, and how do we go about it? The biggest difference is made with small, but progressive and consistent changes to our lifestyle. These changes need to occur both at home and in school and parents need to take the lead by setting a good example.
When it comes to food and eating, don’t deny your child the occasional treat, but rather limit them and always provide healthy alternatives. When your child gets home from school, vegetable sticks and cut up fruit should be out on the table for them. At first they may resist, but they will eventually come around and partake. Plan the treat per day the night before and let them understand they only get one and therefore they should enjoy it. It is a good idea for the parent to sit with a dietician once or twice to fully understand what healthy eating entails so they know what to teach their children, and how to help them succeed. There are so many misconceptions about what proper, healthy eating is. Go to an expert and don’t do something extreme, or it will backfire.
For children, it is activity which can make the biggest difference. Start by having your child walk or bike to and from school. Have them get on and off buses a stop one or two stops early. Use stairs and not elevators. Schools must be encouraged to incorporate physical activity into the school day–formal programs are needed in the schools to introduce exercise and activity into our children’s lives; it doesn’t have to be competitive sports if that is problematic.
Without health, we cannot function properly. We cannot do the will of Hashem and keep His Torah and mitzvot. It is bad enough that as we age, we have more battles on our hands to maintain our health. By improving our nutrition habits and incorporating activity and exercise into the lives of our children, over time, they can lose weight, and gain health. They can avert the awful consequences of obesity and enter adulthood with their physical and mental health intact. These are the formative years and it is so important that your child be happy during this period of time. Constant trips to the doctor’s office are not very fun.
By being the proper example as parents and getting the schools involved (encouraging activity and limiting junk food in the school) we can save the lives of our children before it is too late. Dealing with overweight and obesity in our children before it is too late will “add hours to their days, days to their years, and years to their lives.”