Did you know 1 in 8 preschoolers in the US is obese? Obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
Being that it's the latest epidemic, childhood obesity may not be so new to you. More and more people are becoming aware of the long-term consequences. For example, obese youngsters:
- are more likely to become obese adolescents and obese adults. In fact, they are 5 times as likely as normal-weight children.
- are more likely to suffer lifelong mental health problems
- are more likely to suffer lifelong physical health problems, such as high cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure and asthma
- are more at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and osteoarthritis.
- are at increased risk for breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thryoid, ovary, cervix, and prostate cancer
Although these long-term consequences don't appear overnight, they are serious. Also, they're only part of the picture. Childhood obesity also brings about a list of immediate health effects that is greater than most people imagine:
- risk factors for cardiovascular disease start to appear in obese youths as early as age 5
- prediabetes can occur in obese adolescents, blood sugar levels indicating a high risk of developing diabetes
- bone, joint, and muscle problems
- sleep apnea
- greater tendency toward emotional, behavioral, social and psychological problems (poor self-esteem, stigmatization, depression)
- twice the risk of 3 or more reported medical, mental, development conditions
- conduct disorder
- learning disabilities, higher rates of grade repetition, missed school days, and other school problems
- developmental delays
- ear infections
- dental caries
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reports that obese children naturally produce elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, than their normal-weight colleagues. Chronic exposure to excessive cortisol can cause serious health problems over time. The American Academy of Neurology published research pointing to another surprising health risk linked to childhood obesity - pediatric multiple sclerosis. The study found that the risk of MS was 1.8 times higher in obese girls and 4 times higher in extremely obese girls compared to normal weight girls. Another startling concern that childhood obesity raises is that it could be disrupting normal timing of puberty. A review in Frontiers in Endocrinology reports that this awkward and unpleasant event appears to be starting earlier in obese females. Obesity is also linked to decreased reproductive function.
Conquering a Complex Problem
What's feeding the obesity epidemic? A study published in the American Heart Journal shows bad habits are. Obese children were more likely to watch television or play video games for 2 or more hours daily, to consume more soda, and less likely to engage in physical activities. Their dates were considerably different from non-obese children. Instead of pointing fingers, a more productive approach is to consider the positive influence and role parents can play. Parents can be the ultimate nutrition and exercise role models! As a parent, can you try new foods, purchase and prepare healthier foods, serve reasonable portion sizes, or be a model for an active lifestyle? Why not allow your children to join you in shopping for and cooking healthy meals? What is your policy on watching television, using the computer, and playing video games? It's never too late to set a good example and help your children enjoy healthier foods. The journal Appetite recommends a neat tip: try using repeated exposure and associative conditioning to promote children's liking of healthier foods. For example, when a child craves a high-fat or calorie-dense food, start by oferring a nutrient-dense food first even if it's not liked (repeated exposure) or a nutrient-dense food with a liked spread, dip, or sauce (associative conditioning). Studies show that this can increase a child's vegetable liking and intake after as little as 5 exposures.
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