Obesity in Children and Youth: A growing disorder
Traditionally and from medical point of view, "Obesity" means excess accumulation of body fat, usually 20% or more over an individual's ideal body weight. Today, in India there is a rising prevalence of obesity among children and youth leading to various health problems, and often life-threatening diseases.
When we look at a chubby and somewhat overweight child, our instant reaction is, "look how cute the baby is". So this is a normal image of a healthy child that we have made in our minds, and this has been going on for generations. When a baby is born, our first concern is to keep the baby healthy by giving him or her the adequate food and nutrition. In order to do so, we often feed the child with foods having excess fatty content like butter and ghee. This is a preconceived notion that we have in our minds which is not quite true. Children need their adequate amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fatty acids but in correct portions. An obese child is more likely to grow into an obese adult in future. So it is better to control obesity beforehand to prevent some serious ailments.
What causes obesity
- Poor eating habits and eating disorders: Children nowadays often indulge in fast food or junk foods that are available everywhere. Food like burgers, pizza, aerated beverages like Pepsi and Coke contain fat calories that are immediately stored in fat cells of the body after the intake. Some of these foods like beverages contain no nutritional value and can cause cancer. Some drinks especially the dark ones like Pepsi and cola are extremely dangerous if taken persistently.
- Anorexia: Teenagers especially girls are found to suffer from a medical condition called anorexia nervosa. In this case, the patient suffers from loss self-esteem believing that she is fat and starves herself in order to look lean and thin. The patient may often practice self-induced vomiting thus throwing up the food that she has taken. This may often lead to death due to severe malnutrition.
- Family history of obesity: If both the parents are obese a child may tend to be slightly overweight due to genetic factors. But it may not be true always. It also depends on the metabolic rate of the body. The more we burn our energy the more lean we are.
- Lack of exercise and physical activity: Children and teenagers nowadays are glued to television and video games. They are more interested in indoor games and hobbies. They love going to cinema halls and coffee shops more than hitting the local play ground. Outdoor games like cricket, footballs, and activities are rarely seen. Children should be encouraged to go outside and play for an hour or so.
- Sedentary lifestyle: A laid back and inactive lifestyle often contributes to obesity. Parents should make an effort to go out with their children and visit parks, museums and playgrounds to keep their children busy.
- Medical illnesses: Medical problems, like hypothyroidism, hypertension, Cushing's Syndrome, depression, etc can also cause obesity. Proper medical advice should be taken immediately.
- Medications like steroids can also cause obesity.
- Stressful life: Children having psychological problems like depression and anxiety can cause obesity. Family problems like divorce or death or loss of parents can cause severe stress. Peer pressure and academic pressure can cause stress. Often obese children suffer from lack of self confidence due to their appearance. This can also lead to depression. Binge eating disorder can also lead to obesity in which case a mental health professional should be consulted. These stress related problems often cause serious anxiety leading to obesity and eating disorders.
Effects of Obesity on Children and Youth
- Medical complications including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, breathing problems, lack of energy, etc.
- Sleep disorders including trouble getting to sleep, feeling sleepy during the day, waking up in the middle of the night and crying, bed wetting and having nightmares, etc.
- Psychological and emotional problems like depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder especially among teenagers. Being overweight, children often suffer from low self-esteem and lack of confidence.
Prevention of obesity
- Eating the right kind of food will help overcoming it. For e.g. carbohydrates like cereals, bread, fruits, and vegetables helps in overall growth of a child. Carbohydrates are the building blocks of a child's body. Proper protein intake like fish, eggs, lean meat, and chicken also should be taken in plenty. Plenty of fruits and vegetables should be taken. They are rich in vitamins and minerals. Most of all sugary and fatty snacks like chips and burgers should be avoided as much as possible.
- Healthy lifestyle. Proper exercise and physical activity should be initiated by parents. Extracurricular activities like singing, dancing, karate, swimming, sports etc. not only helps children to utilize their free time but also enables them to develop their skills and hobbies. Parents should take their children out for some brisk walks or to the playground every day. Physical exercises and sports should be included in schools too.
- Regular medical checkups for children should be made to monitor his or her overall growth. If any physical disorder is found that can be treated as well. Consulting a proper dietitian can help in regulating the calorie intake of the child and also to provide proper nutrition to enhance the child's overall activity.
- Loving your child and giving her emotional support is very important. Ensure your child that whatever her or his physical appearance is, that he or she is loved unconditionally. Depression related to the physical appearance of the child may often lead to lack of self esteem. So a child needs love, acceptance, mental support, and encouragement from his or her parent.
Obesity is a growing disease in our society. It is not only an attribute of physical or medical conditions but also depends on our socioeconomic lifestyle. Parents should be role model for their kids. If they follow a healthy and regulated lifestyle so will their children. We learn from our elders. Children watch and follow their parents. Rising and getting up early, doing regular exercises, eating healthy and nutritious food, doing exercises, playing with friends all attribute to a healthy lifestyle.
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