What Causes Childhood Obesity?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 3:15pm

By Rose Giordano

It is easy to ignore a child who is overweight because typically extra pounds are attributed to "baby fat." You'll often hear people say that the child will simply "grow out of it." However, since the 1980s childhood obesity has been on the rise in the United States and has become a major health issue. According to growth charts from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey II (NHANES II) and the Centers for Disease Control, the prevalence of overweight children aged six to eleven years old doubled in the three years from 1999-2002. During these same years, the prevalence in adolescents aged twelve to nineteen tripled. What's going on?

Who or what is to blame for childhood obesity?

There are several factors that may play a role in the rise in childhood obesity. Some people claim that parents are at fault for not instilling proper eating habits. Others suggest that the school systems are to blame for not teaching healthy food choices in the cafeteria. In the end, the exact causes are unknown and are vigorously debated among nutritionists, schools, and parents.

Recently, calorie-dense soft drinks have come under fire as a major contributor to excess weight in children. During a study that followed 30 children attending a summer camp, researchers learned that if given the choice between an artificially flavored sugar drink and milk, most children chose the sugar drink. Furthermore, many of the children who drank more than 12 ounces of the sugar drink gained more weight over the next four to eight weeks than did those who drank milk1. As the result of these and similar findings, in 2003 California became the first U.S. state to ban the sales of soft drinks in junior high and elementary schools.

Inactivity has also gained attention as being a major culprit for childhood obesity. The principal sedentary behavior in the United States is, not surprisingly, television viewing. However, we can be certain that video games and Internet surfing are also contributing factors. What is the difference between the inactivity of television viewing, video games, Internet surfing, and say, reading a book or doing homework? Well, television watching has been linked to snacking largely because of all the visual cues food commercials provide.

The health risks and psychological/emotional toll of childhood obesity

The physical health risks to obese children are numerous. Research suggests that there are several risk factors, including elevated cholesterol, hypertension, type II diabetes (see Juvenile Diabetes), and sleep apnea (difficulty breathing while sleeping), associated with excess weight during childhood. Moreover, scientists have shown that obesity in youth will find its way to adulthood. Basically, the longer a child is overweight, the more likely he/she will be an overweight adult.

Aside from the numerous health issues, overweight children also experience psychological and emotional repercussions. Being overweight or obese is a highly visible condition, which makes it is easy for others to assess and comment on. Children who are overweight tend to be discriminated against by their schoolmates.

A study that compared average-weight children with obese children showed that obese children were teased three times more often2. Another study reported that children who were criticized for their weight had negative attitudes towards athletics and also reported reduced activity levels3. Unfortunately, the teasing doesn't always stay at school. Oftentimes, criticism makes its way into the home through siblings and parents. Clearly the emotional well-being of an obese child is fragile. Approaching the topic is a delicate issue.

Strategies for prevention and treatment of childhood obesity

Here are some things you can do to help prevent or treat childhood obesity:

  • Control the amount of time your child watches television
  • Encourage physical activity (e.g. participation in sports, walking the dog, and doing household chores)
  • Teach your child better food choices

This is a large responsibility for parents to undertake by themselves. As a result, schools have become increasingly involved by promoting healthy food choices and offering healthier options in the cafeteria and vending machines. There are also many after-school programs that deter inactivity and overeating. The first step in prevention and/or treatment is to help children change their eating behaviors and live healthier lifestyles.

For more information on overcoming childhood obesity see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Treatment of Childhood Obesity: Behaviour Modification Therapy, Treatment of Childhood Obesity: The Diet Component and Treatment of Childhood Obesity: The Physical Activity Component.

1 Journal of Pediatrics, Volume 142, pages 604-610; 2003

2 International Journal of Obesity, Volume 26, pages 123-131; 2002

3 International Journal of Obesity, Volume 26, pages S127-S129; 2005