Obesity in children is defined as the excess accumulation of fat in the body which negatively affects the child’s health. Obesity in general is a worldwide problem as it poses the risk of developing life-threatening illnesses.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is a widely used screening tool to measure obesity. It is acceptable for use in children two years of age and above. It is the measure of the body weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters.
The normal range for a BMI in children vary with age and sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a BMI greater or equal to the 95th percentile is defined as obesity.
Childhood obesity is associated with higher chances of premature death and disability is adulthood. Children who are obese are likely to develop diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular problems at a younger age.
What Causes Obesity in Children?
Consuming more energy than the body uses for growth, health functioning and physical activities may lead to extra weight gained. There are several factors that lead to childhood obesity and a few are listed below:
- Genetics – polymorphism in various genes that control appetite and metabolism predispose a child to obesity when sufficient calories are present.
- Eating habits – eating large amounts of meals especially high calorie junk foods.
- Little or no physical activity
- Medications – some medications such as steroids and antidepressants can cause obesity.
- Medical conditions – some genetic syndromes like Prader-Willi and hormonal conditions like hypothyroidism can cause obesity.
Symptoms of Obesity in Children
Some of the symptoms experienced in childhood obesity are:
- Psychological – an obese child may have eating disorders, poor self-esteem and may be teased and abused.
- Shortness of breath when physical active.
- Sleep apnea.
- Appearance – they may have stretch marks and dark velvety skin.
- They may have some gastroenterological symptoms like constipation and gastroesophageal reflux.
- Irregular menstrual cycles in girls.
- Delayed puberty in boys.
- They may have flat feet, knock knees or dislocated hips.
What are the Health Effects of Obesity in Children?
As stated above, obesity may lead to life threatening conditions. It may have effects on the various body systems which are stated below:
- Diabetes mellitus
- Metabolic syndrome
- Impaired glucose tolerance
- Effects on growth and puberty
- Not able to get pregnant or have a successful delivery.
- Coronary heart disease
- Obesity hypoventilation syndrome – failure to breathe rapidly or deeply enough.
- Obstructive sleep apnea – sleep disorder which causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Nonalcoholic liver disease
- Cholelithiasis – formation of gall bladder stones
- Idiopathic intracranial hypertension
- Slipped capital femoral epiphysis – shift in the upper part of the femur resulting from a weakened hip joint.
- Blount disease – growth disorder of the tibia that causes the lower leg to angle inward.
- Intertrigo – inflammation of the skin folds.
- Furunculosis – development of boils which is an infection of the hair follicles.
- Poor self-esteem
How to Diagnose Childhood Obesity
Body Mass Index (BMI) is used to screen for obesity. A doctor may also take a history and perform a physical examination. As part of diagnosing childhood obesity, the child will also be screened for conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, menstrual problems in girls, psychological problems and abnormal blood lipid levels.
Can Childhood Obesity be Treated?
Treatment for childhood obesity would include the following:
- Increased physical activity to help the child lose weight.
- Modification of diet quality and caloric content.
- Behavioral modification to address self-esteem and eating disorders.
- Counselling and group therapy to provide psychosocial support for the child whiles management is ongoing.
How to Prevent Childhood Obesity
To help a child maintain a healthy body weight you should encourage more physical activity in the child. The child should be encouraged to participate in physical activities with other children like sports to burn exercise body fats. Engaging in family sports or exercise can also be very helpful to the child especially if the child is having trouble relating with his/her peers.
You should also monitor meals and avoid high junk calorie meals. These foods easily get converted and stored as fat in the body. Age-appropriate portion sizes of meals should be offered and overeating should be avoided in the child.
Finally, you should serve children water more frequently rather than sweetened sugary drinks.