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Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention of Childhood Obesity

Over the last couple of decades, childhood obesity has become an epidemic in Western wold, increasingly affecting children of all ages. Studies show that children who are overweight or obese by age 11 are likely to carry their excess weight into adulthood and increase their risk of developing serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis and even some types of cancer).

Risk Factors and Causes of Childhood Obesity

The most obvious causes of obesity include overeating, unhealthy diet, lack of physical exercise and genetic predisposition. Obesity is more common in American blacks and Hispanics than in other racial or ethnic groups. Children are much less physically active today than in the past. Computers games and television have replaced outdoor activities for most children. Economic background may play a role too, because foods rich in simple sugars and unsaturated fats such as sweets and burgers are often cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, overweight parents are more likely to have overweight children who are more likely to grow into obese adults. The likelihood of an obese child remaining obese into adulthood is 20% for obese 4-year-olds, while it is 80% for adolescents.

Bad eating habits are the most common factors behind childhood obesity. They include:

  • Large portion sizes
  • Diet high in refined sugars and starches
  • Diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • Diet low in fruits, vegetables and fiber
  • High consumption of junk food
  • High consumption of sugary soft drinks

Other factors behind childhood obesity include:

  • Lack of muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories than other tissues, thus helping manage healthy weight. The lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyle are a major contributing factor for a lack of muscle mass in most children.
  • Chronic diseases. Insulin resistance, polycystic ovary syndrome, hypothyroidism and Cushing’s syndrome are known to contribute to obesity.
  • Psychological factors. Many children eat out of boredom, stress, sadness or anger.
  • Medications. Certain medications, such as some antihistamines and antidepressants may cause a child to gain excess weight.
  • Vitamin deficiencies. Filling up on empty calories, such as fast food or candies, can not only promote weight gain, but it also puts children at risk for deficiencies in vital nutrients.

Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity

Diet and exercise are two of the major factors contributing to childhood obesity that can be influenced. Therefore, improving the diet and adding exercise into daily activities are the most common measures when it comes to treating and preventing obesity. Even modest weight loss can be very beneficial to the child’s health. However, since children are still developing, extensive weight loss may not be healthy for them unless obesity is too severe, already involving major health complications.

In general, healthy diets should be rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and fish, with no more than 30% of daily calorie intake from fat. Parents should avoid purchasing processed foods and snacks high in unsaturated fat and refined sugar and sweetened soft drinks.

Other common steps that can help reduce a child’s risk of obesity include:

  • Serve as a role model. Exercise regularly and eat healthy foods to create a role model for your children to follow.
  • Serve nutrient-rich foods, such as fish, whole grains, cereals, lean meat, legumes, eggs and low-fat yogurt as well as fruit and vegetable salads. This will help promote a feeling of fullness that may curb a child’s urge to snack and will also prevent vitamin deficiencies.
  • Encourage children to eat breakfast. Skipping breakfast often leads to hunger and snacking throughout the day.
  • Do not insist that children eat when not hungry or that they finish every meal.
  • Encourage children to snack on fresh fruit, vegetables, low-fat yogurt or whole-grain crackers.
  • Do not reward or comfort a child with food, such as candies, dessert or sweets, as a reward for finishing a meal or some other task.
  • Allow children to occasionally enjoy sweets. Forbidding sweets altogether may make them rebel and sneak sweets behind your back.
  • Do not purchase fast food more than once a week.
  • Spend time being active with children. This may include outdoor games or family walks.
  • Limit a child’s computer and TV time.

Age-Specific Issues for Preventing Obesity

Infant issues

Breastfeeding may help prevent children from gaining excess weight later in life. Babies who are breastfed are better able to regulate food intake and to follow body cues that indicate hunger and satiety.

Childhood issues

Children between the ages of two and twelve years should be encouraged to develop good eating and exercise habits. Introducing new healthy foods can be challenging, as many small children reject them initially. But do not give up, as some children do not positively respond to a food until they have eaten it several times. Encouraging children to be physically active helps them to burn off the calories they accumulate while eating. Generally, children should engage in at least one hour of physical activity per day.

Adolescent issues

Many teens develop a bad habit of eating fattening fast foods, such as burgers with lots of French fries and sugary drinks. Parents should encourage healthier alternatives with smaller portion sizes. Teenagers who have not developed an interest in team sports may still be open to alternative physical activities, such as swimming, running, walking, yoga, dancing, mountain biking or inline skating.

Where to Find More Information: Journal of Childhood Obesity