Dangers of Childhood Obesity
I first saw Sarah for her 3-year-old well-child visit. She was already overweight. Her baby bottle was filled with a soft drink. Through the years I cajoled, coaxed, pleaded with, beseeched, implored, encouraged and appealed to her parents and family to change their ways. They did not.
Sarah's first hospitalization for diabetes occurred when she was only 8 years old. High blood pressure began at age 10. Her family's lack of attention to these problems led to asthma, heart problems and scores of hospitalizations. Finally, at age 14, Sarah's body gave out. Her last admission was for a diabetic coma that led to a massive heart attack and death. When she died, I cried.
Being overweight or obese is a serious threat to a child's health. Childhood obesity – and the physical, emotional, relational and spiritual disease it brings – is now epidemic. Although Sarah's case is extreme, as many as one in three children in the United States today may be overweight or obese! In 1970, only about 4 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds were obese. By 2000, the rate had increased to more than 15 percent.
Being overweight or obese during childhood or adolescence dramatically increases the risk of obesity during adulthood. This increased risk is due to poor eating or exercise habits developed during childhood, metabolic and hormonal changes caused by being overweight or obese and eating abnormalities based on the poor self-esteem and depression often associated with obesity.
Childhood obesity also increases the risk of childhood diseases that were rare when I entered medicine in the 1970s. Such diseases include type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, early hardening of arteries, soaring cholesterol levels, sleep apnea, stomach and pancreas disease, liver and gall bladder disease, increased cardiovascular risk factors, early arthritis and many more. In fact, the American Heart Association estimates that 27 million children under the age of 19 have high cholesterol and that 2.2 million have high blood pressure.
Type 2 diabetes is considered epidemic in adolescents. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predict that one in three American children born in 2000 will go on to develop diabetes. And up to 50 percent of children with these diseases don't even know they have them!
Childhood obesity can yield emotional and social trauma as well. For years we've known that chubby children are teased and bullied by their classmates, which can lead to low self-esteem. Not until recently did we learn how badly obesity affects children emotionally and socially. In 2003, University of California researchers compared quality of life scores of obese children with those of healthy, normal-weight children and children with cancer who have had chemotherapy. Obese children are five and a half times as likely to report an impaired quality of life as healthy, normal-weight children. Even more shocking, severely obese children rate their quality of life as about the same as children with cancer who have been treated with chemotherapy!
In addition, children or teens who are obese or overweight are often considered to be lazy when, in reality, physical activity is much more difficult for them than for children of normal weight. Excessive weight stresses children's joints and may cause leg or back pain when they exercise. Obesity also reduces their endurance, making exercise more difficult. Last, but not least, low self-esteem or depression, which often accompanies being overweight or obese, alters the production of brain chemicals that influence the desire for activity.
Children or teens who become obese will have significantly more difficulty losing weight and maintaining weight loss throughout life. Why is this? Because children or teens who become overweight or obese do so by dramatically increasing the number and size of their fat cells. Obese children make five times more fat cells than leaner children. Why is this so bad? you may be thinking. Can't you lose them later, when you lose weight?
No! Emphatically, no! Weight loss will cause a decrease in fat cell size but not fat cell numbers. Therefore, a critical part of raising highly healthy children is preventing them from becoming overweight or obese.