Childhood Obesity – Causes and Potential Long-Term Effects

Abstract

There is growing concern about the state of children’s health. Every year there is an increase in the number of overweight and obese children. What causes this and what does it mean for them long-term? There are many contributing factors to children’s weight issues.

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Some of these factors are limited access to healthy food, more time spent in front of a screen, and less physical activity. Long-term health affects include a rising risk of Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and some forms of cancer. The implications are that children are becoming unhealthier every year which raise the cost of medical care and reduce their life expectancy.

Childhood Obesity:

Causes and Potential Long-Term Effects

A stunning number of pre-school aged children are overweight or obese and those numbers are growing every year. One study, conducted over the course of 30 years, has shown childhood obesity rates have risen steadily and show no sign of stopping. “The percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s” (CDC, 2017). How did the American and Global populations rise to the obesity rates that we are seeing today? Historically, weight issues only seemed to affect the upper echelons of society, those who could afford food in abundance. Yet today we are seeing rising numbers of obese children in every demographic. What causes childhood obesity and what are the long-term effects? This essay will cover four areas of interest in the growing epidemic that is childhood obesity. There are:

  • The causes of childhood obesity
  • The cost of medical treatment of childhood obesity and its attendant long-term effects
  • The long-term effects of childhood obesity
  • Potential solutions for the treatment and prevention of childhood obesity

With an understanding of these areas, we can hope to find solutions that will help current and future generations deal with this growing trend. Childhood obesity effects every area of that child’s life and will continue to affect that child as he or she grows to adulthood.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

There are several causes of childhood obesity from genetics, to a lifestyle of convenience, to ease of access in acquiring healthy foods, among others. While the causes of obesity based on genetics is still being studied, there is some evidence that genetics play a role in childhood obesity. According to Sahoo et al. (2015) “Some studies have found that BMI is 25-40% heritable.” Unfortunately, this means that some children are predisposed to having a higher BMI. They go on to say only 5% of childhood obesity cases can be attributed to this genetic factor and that “Females are more likely to be obese as compared to males, owing to inherent hormonal differences.” These hormonal differences can also be genetically passed down from mother to daughter and father to son.

Another area for concern, in terms of childhood obesity, is the lifestyle of convenience. It is far easier for people to find food in this day and age. Glenn Berall, in his article Obesity: A crisis of growing proportions states that “Never before in the history of civilization has a population had such plentiful food sources without interruption of famine” (2002). This may have led some children to develop a “thrift metabolism” states Rolland-Cachera et al. (2006). A thrifty metabolism is the theory that thrifty genes allow for the storage of food as fat that the body can then use during a famine to continue to give needed energy to the individual. This could explain some of the obesity epidemic as there is rarely ever a famine in this abundant food culture. The lifestyle of convenience goes past readily available to food to available food choices. During the times of hunter-gatherers, food was hard to come by and was considered, by today’s standards, to be healthy. There were no sugary, fatty foods available to these people. They ate what they could find, such as berries, roots, and meat that they caught or killed. Today the food choices are overwhelming. One can simply drive to McDonald’s on the way home to pick up dinner for the family rather than spending time at the grocery store buying healthier options then going home to prepare the meal. In the increasingly busy lifestyle convenience has become the norm, not the atypical go-to for meals.

However, it needs to be mentioned that healthy food is not always easily available to certain demographics. Ashlesha Datar (2017) states that disadvantaged families have higher obesity rates. According to Howlett, Davis, and Burton (2014), “the majority of food deserts in the U.S. are found in low-income neighborhoods.” They state that “food deserts” are areas without “immediate access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” There is a high percentage of convenience stores in these areas and a lack of grocery stores or supercenters that would allow for the purchase of healthy foods. Howlett, Davis, and Burton (2014) go on to say:

“only 5 to 10% of convenience stores had fresh produce. In addition, the top selling food items sold at convenience stores include energy-dense foods such as sweet snacks, candy/gum/mints, and salty snacks.”

They continue on to compare the cost of meals. They estimate that it costs roughly $18.16 per 1000 calories for low-calorie meals compared to the $1.76 per 1000 calories of high-calorie foods. This makes it more expensive for low income families to eat healthier and thus could contribute to the rising rates of childhood obesity.

Along with convenience, comes a sedentary lifestyle. Children spend more time in front of a screen, whether it be television, tablet, computer, or phone, than in the past. This leads to less physical activity. Every hour of television a day increases the risk of obesity by 2% (Sahoo et al. 2015). According to the CDC (2017), “Energy imbalance is a key factor behind the high rates of obesity seen in the United States and globally.” Children are consuming more calories today than ever before but are not getting the needed activity to burn those extra calories. This creates a positive energy balance which leads to the storage of excess energy as fat. Convenience extends beyond food. Some of these contributing trends are the increased use of vehicles, more hazards for cyclists and walkers, increased food and drink choices, and media promotion of energy-dense foods (Lobstein et al. 2004).

Rising Cost of Medical Care

Childhood obesity has contributed to the rising cost of health care. Statistically, children who are obese will remain obese in adulthood. This creates the need for long-term medical treatment for a variety of issues. Long-term medical costs for a single obese child come in at approximately $12,660 per year according to Finkelstein et al (2014). In their article, medical for males ranged from $9,640 to $38, 680 with a mean of $24,160. Medical for females ranged from $14,440 to $49,230 with a mean of $31,835. However, some of these numbers do not account for weight fluctuations over a lifetime. By accounting for the fluctuations, they came to an approximate amount of $12,660 a year for both sexes and across each demographic. What time means long-term is that children are obese will pay, on average, more medical expenses than a person who becomes obese as an adult.

Long-Term Effects of Childhood Obesity

There is some controversy over the long-term effects of childhood obesity. Some studies show very little long-term effects while others show an astounding number of effects. However, there are some undisputed long-term risks involved with childhood obesity. Park, Falconer, Viner, and Kinra (2012) have compiled a list of six potential long-term risks associated with childhood obesity. These risks are:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • All-cause mortality

They state that the higher the BMI (body mass index) of the child the greater the risk of developing one or more of the above diseases. “There is a consistent body of evidence for associations between childhood overweight and cardiovascular outcomes and mortality in adulthood” (Park et al. 2012).

Other studies have listed even more potential health problems for obese children. Glenn Berall (2002) lists “sleep apnea, slipped capital femoral epiphyses, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, polycystic ovarian disease, and metabolic syndrome” as potential problems for overweight children as the reach maturity. Sahoo et al. (2015) list vitamin deficiencies as a current and potential long-term problem for obese children.

What one must also consider is the emotional ramifications of childhood obesity. Sahoo et al. (2015) looked at the relationship between eating disturbances and psychological effects on obese children. They found that obese children are more likely to suffer from self-esteem issues, body dissatisfaction, depression and anxiety, and eating disorder symptoms. They continue on to say that “Childhood obesity effects children’s and adolescent’s social and emotional health.” Overweigth children are more likely to be bullied or teased due to their weight. They are also more likely to be discriminated against. “These negative social problems contribute to low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and a negative body image in children and can also affect academic performance” (Sahoo et al. 2015).

Potential Solutions

What can society do to help treat or prevent childhood obesity? There are several things that society can do including changing governmental policies on food distribution and promotion, promote healthier food choices at schools, and advocate for healthier food options in the media.

Governmental policies could create incentives for schools to promote healthier food options. If a school is willing to participate, there could be a financial advantage to that school so that they could help offset the cost of healthier food. The government could offer incentives to grocery stores to build in low-income neighbors to help provide better food options to low-income families. They could also create policies aimed at the media to promote healthy food over junk food.

Schools could help promote better eating by offering students fruits and vegetables rather than high-fat foods. They could also limit or ban the use of vending machines on the property which give students less access the energy-dense foods. Schools could also promote education on the long-term effects of obesity and increase the amount of time spent on physical activity.

The media could promote healthier food options and more realistic body ideals. This would help with the perception that all women must be skinny and all men must be buff which create an unrealistic ideal for children to live up and may contribute to increased eating.

There are several contributing factors to why childhood obesity rates have grown exponentially over the last 40 years. A sedentary and convenient lifestyle, increased access to all types of food, and genetics all play a role. These can lead to long-term habit creation, as in the lack of consistent physical activity and eating a high fat diet, as well as long-term health effects such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and increased risk of cancer. Childhood obesity also leads to higher long-term medical and emotional costs. Change needs to become a priority. The government, media, and schools need to lead the charge in promoting healthier food and education on the long-term risk factors associated with childhood obesity. Change won’t happen overnight, but it can happen.

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