With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating our lives for the past 20 months, it might be easy to forget there is another worldwide health crisis sitting right under our noses: obesity. Obesity is a chronic illness that affects about 650 million adults worldwide.
Officially recognized as a disease since 2013, obesity in adults is defined as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. In the U.S., 70 million adults have obesity. About 350 million children suffer from obesity across the globe, and 14.4 million of those children are in the U.S. One out of every three children in the country is in either the overweight or obese weight status category.
Since children are always growing, growth curves are used to evaluate a child’s weight, height and BMI. Children in the overweight category have a bigger BMI than 85% of children their age, and those with obesity have a bigger BMI than 95% of children their age.
Children who have obesity are at higher risk for developing chronic metabolic diseases, including prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and polycystic ovarian syndrome, in addition to joint pain, acid reflux and sleep apnea. Diseases that were once thought of as diseases of adulthood and aging are now occurring in children as young as 6 years old!
Childhood obesity is also associated with behavioral and emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, bullying and social isolation. Certainly, none of us wants to see children and adolescents suffering with very serious problems that have the potential to shorten their lives.
Many factors contribute to the development of obesity, including genetics, lack of physical activity, hormone imbalance, poor sleep, certain medications, stress and socioeconomic status, but the greatest factor is the high intake of ultra-refined, ultra-processed foods.
A recently published study found most of the daily calorie intake of U.S. youths was from ultra-processed foods like sweet and salty packaged snacks, sugar-sweetened drinks, candy, commercially made breads and cereals and heat-and-eat dishes like pastas, pizzas and meats. These items contain high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, flavor enhancers, colorings and emulsifiers that are not used in regular cooking.
Children diagnosed with overweight or obesity conditions can work with a specially trained, qualified healthcare provider to make changes, help improve their health and decrease the risk of developing some of the illnesses mentioned above. Pediatric providers who have advanced training through the national Obesity Medicine Association, Board Certification or the Certificate of Advanced Education are well-qualified to help.
Healthy nutrition is the mainstay of treatment for pediatric overweight and obesity cases, but there is not a one-size-fits-all plan. One of the most important changes is eliminating refined and processed foods and switching to vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes (beans), lean, unprocessed meats and drinking mainly water, which will go a long way toward improving weight and health.
In future articles, we will discuss dietary recommendations in more detail and provide additional tools to help treat pediatric overweight and obesity conditions, including physical activity, adequate sleep and treatment of sleep disorders, eating behaviors, stress management and medications.
You are the key to help your child keep or take back their health!