Tackling childhood obesity
Obesity occurs when a child is significantly over their ideal weight. Like adults, children become obese when they eat more calories than they use. Obesity in children is determined by using a body mass index (BMI) and is measured by their weight in relation to height.
According to Dr Rivane Chybar Virgo, medical doctor and health and wellness coach, childhood obesity is a growing epidemic and it affects more than 18 per cent of children, making it the most common chronic childhood disease.
“Childhood obesity is a complex disease that can occur when your child is above a healthy weight for their age and height. That is why when you go to a paediatrician or doctor for a check-up, they are always checking the baby’s weight against their height as well,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.
One of the main reasons that prevention of obesity is so vital in children is because the likelihood of childhood obesity persisting into adulthood increases as the child ages.
Obesity can increase a child’s risk for serious and chronic medical problems, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, orthopaedic problems, and liver disease.
Apart from the clinical perspective, children who are affected by obesity face social discrimination, leading to low self-esteem and depression.
Children and teens can become overweight or obese because of poor eating habits and lack of physical activity. Genetics and lifestyle also contribute to a child’s weight status.
“Obesity is an excess accumulation of body fat due to several factors One of the main things is the intake of foods and drinks more than the energy that the child is using. There are other factors that can influence childhood obesity such as genetics, nutrition in pregnancy and lifestyle challenges,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.
According to the World Obesity Federation, Dr Chybar Virgo said, childhood obesity will double by the year 2035, if a change doesn’t take place. These figures will include 208 million boys, and 175 million girls.
Researchers continue to search for ways to treat obesity, but taking preventive measures has proven to be the best method so far. This means eating a healthy diet based on vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein. It is also important to maintain an active lifestyle by getting at least an hour of physical activity per day.
“Today’s environment plays a major role in shaping the habits and perceptions of children and adolescents. In addition, children are surrounded by environmental influences that demote the importance of physical activity,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.
In earlier years, he said children were more involved in physical activity, they ate more fruits and vegetables, had less fast food, ate in smaller portions, there was less stress and less processed foods.
“Today we have less activity, children are eating less fruits and vegetables, more fast food, larger portions, more processed foods, and they have more stress. Children in today’s society show a decrease in overall physical activity. The growing use of computers, increased time watching television and decreased physical education in schools, all contribute to children and adolescents living a more sedentary lifestyle,” she said.
Another major factor contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic is the increased sedentary lifestyle of children. “School-aged children spend most of their day in school where their only activity comes during recess or physical education classes. In the past, physical education was required on a daily basis,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.
Children and adolescents that come from lower-income homes are also at greater risk of being affected by obesity. This is a result of several factors that influence behaviours and activities.
“Lower-income children cannot always afford to partake in extracurricular activities, resulting in a decrease in physical activity. In addition, families that struggle to pay bills and make a living often opt for convenience foods, which are higher in calories, fat and sugar,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.
Educational levels also contribute to the socio-economic issue associated with obesity. Parents with little to no education have not been exposed to information about proper nutrition and healthy food choices. This makes it difficult to instil those important values in their children.
“The children are our future. We need to care about our children’s health if we want to help them to be the greatest person that they want to be. Having a healthy weight predicts better health and well-being into adult life,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.