In 2019, an estimated 38.2 million children under the age of 5 years were overweight or obese. Once considered a high-income country problem, child obesity is now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. Childhood obesity is a complex health issue. It occurs when a child is well above the normal or healthy weight for his or her age and height. The causes of excess weight gain in young people are similar to those in adults, including behaviour and genetics. The rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled over the last four decades—rising from 5 percent in 1978 to 18.5 percent in 2016. But what are the reasons for this rapid increase?
Fast food Consumption
Increased fast food consumption has been linked with obesity in the recent years. Many families, opt for these places as they are often favoured by their children and are both convenient and inexpensive. Foods served at fast food restaurants tend to contain a high number of calories with low nutritional values. Though many studies have shown weight gain with regular consumption of fast food, it is difficult to establish a causal relationship between fast food and obesity.
A study examining children aged 9–14 from 1996–1998, found that consumption of sugary beverages increased BMI by small amounts over the years. Sugary drinks are another factor that has been examined as a potential contributing factor to obesity. Sugary drinks are often thought of as being limited to soda, but juice and other sweetened beverages fall into this category. Sugary drinks are less filling than food and can be consumed quicker, which results in a higher caloric intake.
One of the factors that is most significantly linked to obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. Each additional hour of television per day increased the prevalence of obesity by 2%. Television viewing among young children and adolescents has increased dramatically in recent years. The increased amount of time spent in sedentary behaviours has decreased the amount of time spent in physical activity. Research which indicates the number of hours children spend watching TV correlates with their consumption of the most advertised goods, including sweetened cereals, sweets, beverages, and snacks. Media effects have been found for adolescent aggression and smoking and formation of unrealistic body ideals. Regulation of marketing for unhealthy foods is recommended, as is media advocacy to promote healthy eating.
Research findings comparing overweight/obese children with normal-weight children in regards to self-esteem have been mixed. Some studies have found that obese children have lower self-esteem while others do not. There is some consensus in the literature that the global approach to self-esteem measurement with children who are overweight/obese is misleading as the physical and social domains of self-esteem seem to be where these children are most vulnerable.
Eating disorder symptoms
Traits associated with eating disorders appear to be common in adolescent obese populations. A number of studies have shown higher prevalence of eating-related pathology (i.e. Anorexia, Bulimia Nervosa, and impulse regulation) in obese children/youth.
Childhood obesity can profoundly affect children’s physical health, social, and emotional well-being, and self-esteem. It is also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child. It has also been linked to numerous medical conditions. These conditions include, but are not limited to, fatty liver disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, skin conditions, menstrual abnormalities and impaired balance. Until recently, many of the above health conditions had only been found in adults; now they are extremely prevalent in obese children. Childhood obesity has also been found to negatively affect school performance. A research study concluded that overweight and obese children were four times more likely to report having problems at school than their peers. They are also more likely to miss school more frequently, especially those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and asthma, which can also affect academic performance.
The growing issue of childhood obesity can be slowed, if one focuses on the causes. There are many components that play into childhood obesity, some being more crucial than others. A combined diet and physical activity intervention conducted in the community with a school component is more effective at preventing obesity or overweight. Moreover, if parents enforce a healthier lifestyle at home, many obesity problems could be avoided. What children learn at home about eating healthy, exercising and making the right nutritional choices will eventually spill over into other aspects of their life. This will have the biggest influence on the choices kids make when selecting foods to consume and choosing to be active. Focusing on these causes may, over time, decrease childhood obesity and lead to a healthier society as a whole.