The increase in obesity rates in the world today is extreme and disturbing. In fact, worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980. Furthermore, this is starting from a young age. Over 42 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2013. This is a scary, scary thing.
Obesity in childhood is linked to some very dangerous conditions. The facts are enough to make even the biggest milkshake fan take pause. Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Obese adolescents are more likely to have prediabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels indicate a high risk for development of diabetes. Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
The risks from this childhood condition continue into adulthood. Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults. They are more at risk for health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and osteoarthritis. Overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for many types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate, as well as multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
As frightening as these facts are, there are ways to fight back. With your help, your child can live a full, happy and healthy life without the burden of obesity and its’ disturbing consequences.
In children, exercise is the most important factor in keeping kids at a healthy weight. Adults’ weight is more highly linked to what we eat. However, exercise in children has powers that we can’t benefit from once we reach adulthood. Everyone is born with a unique set of genes that influence sensitivity to a wide range of stimuli, including food. These genes also affect how one’s body responds to food intake and fat storage. However, recent studies have shown that methylation, or adding a cluster of carbon and hydrogen atoms to genes, turns the “fat genes” off! So when children engage in aerobic exercise, it adds methyl groups to the genes that control how fat is deposited and metabolized. Exercise actually suppresses genes that make people fat. And this is a benefit that kids are privy to in a way that adults simply are not. Unfair, but good for parents to remember when their children want to play video games all day. In fact, these benefits begin to occur after a single session of aerobic exercise. As an added bonus, exercise helps kids increase bone mass.
Help your kids structure their free time better. Children actually put on more weight in the summer than during any other season. This seems counterintuitive, as the freedom of the warmer months allows them to run around outside and not be restricted to classroom seats for much of the day. In fact, this “freedom” actually leads to boredom, which is linked to increased snacking. Additionally, leisure activities for children these days are largely sedentary. Days are spent on computers, iPads, and gaming systems, all of which require minimal movement. In order to help your child minimize mindless eating and maximize activity, help them structure their free time- both during the school vacations and weekends. Find clubs they can join, schedule lessons or sporting leagues, organize play dates with friends. The more they have to do, the less they will eat.
Sleep is another factor that is hugely important in the discussion of weight. While eating well and exercise are critically important, sleep helps in a range of unique and valuable ways. When we do not get enough sleep, our bodies naturally get hungrier. This is because we need additional energy (in calorie form) to keep us awake and functioning. With less sleep, our reward centers in our brain function differently. Responses to calorie-dense foods are more intense, driving us to enjoy eating them more. Furthermore, sleep deprivation essentially turns off the forebrain, which affects judgement and moderation. This creates a perfect storm of needing food to function, desiring food that is unhealthy, and lacking the moderation to keep us from overeating. The result: uninhibited gorging on fattening foods. Helping your kids establish a regular sleep schedule is critically important, and should be maintained during weekends and vacations as well.
Some of these interventions seem obvious. Others are surprising. All of them are important. While making changes to dietary habits and favored routines is never easy, helping your child develop a healthy lifestyle and weight now will benefit them throughout their lives. If you need help addressing such a sensitive issue, a pediatrician, registered dietitian, or therapist can help broach the topic in a supportive and informative way. For more information, contact your child’s primary care physician or a pediatric clinic.
Dr. Beth Rutkowski is a Clinical Psychologist who and Psychology Team Lead for LIH Olivia’s Place Shanghai. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s emotional or behavioral health and habits, you are welcome to contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or the LIH Olivia’s Place team at (8621) 5404-0058 in Shanghai or (010) 6461-6283 in Beijing.