Obesity in children: a real cause for concern

Fig. 1: Childhood obesity

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines obesity as ‘‘abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health’’. A child is said to be obese when s/he is significantly overweight for his or her age.

Childhood obesity is a public health concern because it puts children and adolescents at risk for poor health. It is continually affecting many low and middle-income countries, mostly in the urban settings. In 2016, the prevalence of overweight children under the age of five, was estimated to have been over 41 million globally and about half of the children under 5 lived in Asia and one quarter in Africa (WHO, 2020).

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is commonly used to measure obesity. The normal range for BMI in children varies with age and sex. While a BMI above the 85th percentile is defined as overweight, a BMI greater than or equal to the 95th percentile is defined as obesity (CDC, 2020).

Fig 2. Body Mass Index (BMI) for age percentiles: Boys, 2-20 years and Body Mass Index (BMI) for age percentiles: Girls, 2-20 years

Source: Centre for Disease Control (CDC)

Causes of Childhood Obesity
Fundamentally, an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended causes children to be obese (WHO, 2020). Other causes of childhood obesity include:

  • Genetic factors
  • Lack or low level of physical activity
  • Unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of these factors.
  • Hormonal problems: this medical condition can only be seen in rare cases (Schwartz, 2020).

Health Consequences of childhood obesity
Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of premature death and disability in adulthood (WHO, 2020). It predisposes to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, liver and renal disease, and reproductive dysfunction. This condition also increases the risk of adult-onset obesity and risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age (Schwarz, 2020). Other health consequences, according to the CDC include:

  • Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea.
  • Joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort.
  • Fatty liver disease, gallstones, and gastro-esophageal reflux (heartburn)
  • Psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.
  • Low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life.
  • Social problems such as bullying and stigma.

Prevention of childhood obesity
One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the eating and exercise habits of the whole family. Other strategies recommended by the WHO include:

  1. Consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts
  2. Consumption of unsaturated fat other than saturated fat
  3. Limit the intake of sugars
  4. Physical activities, such as 60 minutes of regular, moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity each day that is developmentally appropriate.

Children and adolescents require special attention in order to fight the obesity epidemic because they do not get to choose what they eat and the environment they find themselves in (WHO, 2020).
Most people think it is evidence that a child is feeding well when s/he is fat, what are your thoughts on this? How best do you suggest childhood obesity should be curtailed in society?

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