Addressing childhood obesity
Here, we look at the causes and complications of childhood obesity, as well as how best to tackle this condition as a parent.
September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and it is dedicated to educating children and their families on how to prevent childhood obesity. The rate of childhood obesity has been increasing with pace in the UAE, but the pandemic has worsened this issue among our youth. In 2018, 12 percent of children were obese. That figure was 17.4 percent in 2020, according to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Health and Community Protection. What this tells us is that the children of this region need to be supported with managing or preventing childhood obesity.
Children who have a body mass index (BMI) that is equal or greater than 95 percent of their age group are considered obese. BMI is a scale used to classify your weight in relation to what is normal and healthy for your age and gender, and is calculated using your height and weight.
Childhood obesity refers to a condition where a child’s body has accumulated excessive fat, to the extent that it negatively impacts their health. It is a serious concern that can lead to various physical and psychological health issues. Some of the potential risks associated with childhood obesity include:
Type 2 diabetes
Obese children are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a condition where the body cannot properly use insulin to control blood sugar levels.
Obesity is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure in children, which can persist into adulthood and lead to serious health issues.
Excess weight can strain the joints, leading kids to suffer with joint pain and mobility issues. This can affect their ability to exercise, which can lead to further weight gain and health concerns.
Obese children are more likely to develop sleep apnea, a condition where breathing temporarily stops during sleep. It has adverse effects on the body and can deeply impact sleep quality.
Psychological and social issues
Children with obesity may face social stigmatisation, low self-esteem, low confidence and depression due to body image concerns.
The main cause of obesity in kids is eating too many calories and exercising too little. Genetic and hormonal factors can influence weight gain, but lifestyle is virtually always the main contributor.
There are a number of issues that raise your child’s risk of becoming overweight. Obesity is usually the result of a combination of these. Let’s take a look.
What your child eats is one of the biggest factors in them maintaining or reaching a healthy weight. Eating lots of fat, sugar and processed foods is a quick path to weight gain, as is not getting enough fresh fruits, vegetables or whole, unprocessed foods. Common pitfalls for kids include:
- Fried foods
- Sugary juices or drinks
- Frozen dinners
- Salty snacks
Lack of exercise
The equation for weight gain is simple. If kids consume more calories than they burn, the excess will be stored as fat on their bodies. This means that children who don’t exercise much are a lot more likely to gain weight, as they don’t have calorie-burning activities built into each day.
Sedentary activities, such as spending time on social media, playing video games or watching television, contributes to the problem. Spending too long each day on these is linked to weight gain and a decreased desire to exercise and stay active.
When a child is part of a family where parents or other family members are also overweight, he or she is more likely to put on weight. This is especially the case in a household where physical activity is not encouraged and where children often have access to high-calorie foods and snacks. If adults have a tendency to eat out of boredom or as a reward, kids are likely to adopt this pattern too, which often leads to weight gain.
Stress in their own lives, their parents lives or the family as a whole can increase a child’s risk of obesity. Like many adults, some children overeat to deal with problems or to deal with their feelings. These food-related coping mechanisms place unhealthy foods at the forefront of children’s emotional world, which can be a significant factor in childhood obesity.
Families living in certain socioeconomic bands may struggle with limited resources for food, limited time to cook and less opportunity to buy quality, fresh food. Unfortunately, some of the least expensive and quickest food is also the most processed and calorie dense. As a result, households that rely on convenience foods, such as frozen meals, biscuits and chips, are more prone to unhealthy weight gain. However, there are ways to eat healthily for a low cost, incorporating bulk staples like rice, lentils, vegetables, beans etc.
Sometimes prescription medicines can interfere with a child’s metabolism or energy levels, increasing their risk of developing obesity. If you are worried that your child’s medication is causing weight gain, make sure to consult your family doctor or any relevant medical specialists, who can advise you on how to manage this.
Managing this condition
As a parent, preventing or reversing your child’s obesity can feel overwhelming. Kids need the help of parents to manage this serious health condition, but it must be done with care, kindness and persistence. Making your child feel self-conscious, scared, ashamed or distressed about their weight can be damaging to their self-esteem and social confidence, as well as the dynamic of your relationship. At the same time, childhood obesity is not something to be taken lightly, and it is not a condition that can be left unaddressed. Let’s look at steps you can take together to help your little one lose weight and regain their health.
Embrace healthy food and drinks
Changing to a healthier diet is vital. Kids tend to copy parents, so it’s best if you lead by example. Making healthy eating a family affair means no one will feel singled out. Have healthy snacks available and limit sweets and other sugary foods. Try air-popped popcorn without butter, chopped fruits, low-fat yoghurt, carrot sticks with hummus, or whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk.
Swap soft drinks and high calorie juices for water and make an effort to cook from scratch, phasing out any processed convenience foods. Try basing your family meals around fresh foods, including:
- Lean proteins, such as white fish, chicken and turkey mince
- Whole grains, such as brown rice, oats and wholewheat pasta
- Low-fat dairy products
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
Don’t be afraid to seek out additional help from a nutritionist or dietician and remember to offer new foods multiple times as it can take children several exposures to accept a new food.
Increase activity levels
Encouraging your little one to become more active is a great way to help them shed weight safely. It can be helpful to refer to something as an ‘activity’ rather than saying ‘exercise’ so that they don’t feel daunted or self-conscious, and so that they do stay interested. Playing chasing outside, for example, sounds much more fun to a young child than running laps around the park. Aim to get your child exercising or being active for at least an hour a day.
Family hikes, cycles or swims can also be a great way to help your child get active and start on the path to a healthier weight, while also providing some family bonding time.
Limit screen time
Spending time on screens is linked to weight gain in kids. Studies have indicated that this is for three reasons – screen time takes away from time spent staying active, screen time often goes hand in hand with unhealthy snacking and watching television involves viewing a considerable amount of advertising that promotes high-sugar, high-fat, processed foods with little nutritional value, which can have a powerful influence over what a child habitually eats.
Sugary cereals, sweetened juices and drinks, cookies, chocolate and fast foods are all commonly depicted as delicious, exciting and cool in advertising that is aimed at kids. Sadly the vast majority of commercials during programs aimed at children focus on the emotional value of these unhealthy foods instead of satisfying any of their health needs. Kids then want to eat the foods that are most prominently advertised in greater quantities than whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, which are hardly ever shown.
Screen time tends to displace physical activity in children – so the more time is spent on screens (watching television, playing video games, scrolling on social media, watching videos etc.), the less time tends to be spent playing outside, participating in sports and generally staying active or engaging with movement.
In fact, studies have indicated that many non-physical activities are actually better for children’s health than watching television or scrolling on screens. Activities such as music classes, board games, jigsaw puzzles, art classes and reading may be much better than screen time when it comes to reducing a child’s chances of obesity.
Studies have also indicated that too little sleep raises the risk of obesity. Lack of sleep can cause hormonal imbalances that lead to an increased appetite in kids, as well as a reliance on sugar to boost energy levels temporarily.
By implementing these healthy changes consistently and carefully, you will be able to help your child avoid or reverse childhood obesity over time. If you are struggling to do this, or you are concerned about your child’s weight, consult with your doctor or a paediatric endocrinologist.