Why Childhood Obesity Is So Dangerous

Friday, December 15, 2006 - 9:32am

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Childhood obesity is on the rise. Worse, it has become the most prevalent pediatric problem in the United States, affecting as many as 15-30% of grade school children and adolescents. Obese children are very likely to become obese adults who will have a significantly higher risk of developing medical problems. Moreover, they are more likely to have their lives cut short by disease.

As the problem reaches epidemic proportions, we can no longer narrowly focus on the medical problems obese children will have as adults. They are suffering from a multitude of obesity-related problems right now. This issue must be addressed. Let’s take a look at how obesity affects the bodies of our young children.

The negative effects of obesity

Heart disease

Heart disease is no longer a health problem reserved for older men and women. Children who are overweight with a BMI above the 95th percentile are at-risk for having high “bad” cholesterol, low “good” cholesterol, high triglyceride levels, and high blood pressure. These are all risk factors for heart disease.

Effect of obesity on your lungs

Obesity affects a child’s lung capacity, increasing the risk for asthma. Asthma in turn makes it difficult to be physically active. In addition, overweight children are more likely to have sleep apnea, or episodes of airway blockage that interrupt breathing during sleep. The risks of undiagnosed sleep apnea in children include learning problems, developmental problems, behavior problems and in some cases, failure to grow, heart problems and high blood pressure.

Endocrine system problems caused by obesity

Although we rarely think about them, the glands of the endocrine system and the hormones they release influence almost every cell, organ, and function of our bodies. The endocrine system is instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function and metabolism. Obesity affects the glands of the endocrine system, frequently causing menstrual irregularities in young women. Also affected is the pancreas, the organ that produces insulin, causing insulin resistance. Overweight children who have insulin resistance have an increased incidence of developing type 2 diabetes (see Juvenile Diabetes).

Skeletal and muscular system risks

Growth plates in the legs of obese children can become impaired, affecting their ability to function properly. This results in inadequate bone growth and can lead to flat feet, narrowing of the arches, knee pain, back pain, and irregular hip position. For most children, these pains and deformities will progress into adulthood with little chance for recovery. A cyclical effect begins, as the child is unable to perform any level of physical activity and, thus, gains more weight.

The alliance for a healthier generation—working to promote change

While this picture sounds grim, let’s not forget how resilient children are. All of the above medical problems are reversible if the underlying problem, obesity, is corrected.

Recently, the American Heart Association teamed up with the William J. Clinton Foundation to form the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance is working to mobilize parents, teachers, companies, health care professionals, teens, and kids to combat childhood obesity together. They are promoting an increase in exercise and playtime in school, as well as challenging school districts to improve the nutritional quality of foods and beverages in their vending machines and cafeterias. The Alliance is also partnering with Nickelodeon to target kids and teens through media. The goal of the Alliance is “to stop the nationwide increase in childhood obesity by 2010 and to empower kids nationwide to make healthy lifestyle choices.” To see what you can do to take part in this effort, visit www.healthiergeneration.org.