September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. If you don’t know already, obesity is a serious health problem for children, just as it is in adults. The combination of poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity has physical, psychological, and social consequences for children that frequently persist into adulthood.
Nearly one-third of children and teenagers are over a healthy body weight and 17 percent are considered obese. Although the prevalence of overweight and obesity are lower in children than adults (two-thirds of adults are overweight and over 30 percent are obese), it is important to note that overweight and obesity rates in children are increasing but seem to have leveled off in adults.
There are numerous potential causes of obesity in children, but the most likely suspects are too little activity at school and home and excessive calorie intake, largely because of added sugars. Less than half of all kids meet the minimum recommendation of 60 minutes of activity each day and many children spend as much time watching television or playing video games as they do in school. Only about 10 percent of kids eat three or more servings of vegetables each day and the consumption of sugars from candy, soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, and other foods has been on the rise for years. We shouldn’t be surprised that we have a childhood obesity problem!
The health consequences of obesity can be severe. Adults who are obese are at significantly higher risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke, especially if they are also inactive. The same is true for obese children. In fact, these “adult” diseases are now being diagnosed in preteens! This creates a potential scenario that is troubling.
An adult who is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at age 40 is likely to have a heart attack around age 60. What will happen if someone is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at age 20? Are they likely to suffer a heart attack at age 40? What if type 2 diabetes starts at age 12? No one really knows what to expect, but some experts have predicted that this generation of children will have a shorter life span that their parents because of obesity and obesity-related conditions.
It’s as though our society is doing a big experiment to see what happens when a large percentage of a generation becomes obese. The problem is that we are doing this experiment on children. Worse, even though we don’t know exactly what will happen, the results are expected to be very bad. A study like this – experimenting on children with the expectation of negative health outcomes – would be deemed unacceptable and not be approved. Yet the childhood obesity problem we face now is just this type of experiment.
The good news is that we can end this experiment by taking steps to prevent and treat childhood obesity now. Ensuring that children get plenty of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat meat and dairy, limiting consumption of added sugars, and eating appropriate portion sizes will go a long way to addressing the diet aspect of obesity. Making sure that kids of all ages have opportunities to be active at home and school while limiting time spent sitting, especially in front of a TV, are equally important.
Since children don’t make most of the decisions about their activity and diet, parents, schools, and other institutions play an important role in both contributing to and preventing or treating obesity. You can learn more about childhood obesity and what we can do about this problem at www.coam-month.org.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.