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  • Denise Scott

Fighting the Childhood Obesity Epidemic - Part 1


The word obesity spelled out in wooden block letters.


This is the first article in a series that will focus on the childhood obesity epidemic that our country and many others have been facing for the past three decades. This trend is shortening the lives of children today and causing the development of adult diseases in kids. Children affected by this epidemic are facing significant illnesses by the time they reach adulthood. This epidemic is why I began my blog. I witnessed this evolve over thirty years of practice. I was astounded and disheartened to see and diagnose adult diseases such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, and hypertension in kids. I devote this month's articles to fighting this obesity trend and preventing adult diseases in kids.


WE CAN DO BETTER! 


Children today should not be subjected to a life of chronic illness that is largely preventable. Prevention is not difficult or expensive, but habits have to be changed, which often is not easy.


First, the facts:


1 in 5 children and adolescents are obese

1 in 8 preschoolers are affected by obesity

Severe obesity has become its own epidemic within the obesity epidemic.

The number of children with severe obesity is increasing faster than those with general obesity. 

There has been a near doubling of severe obesity in adolescents since 1999. 

On average, a child today weighs 11-12 pounds more than a child of the 1970s.

This epidemic has caused the lifespan of those born in the past decade to be shorter than their parents.

Type 2 diabetes, once known as adult-onset diabetes, is now the predominant type of diabetes in children (unheard of 20 years ago).

Bariatric surgery is now promoted as a treatment for adolescents with severe obesity.


This. Is. Frightening.



Cartoon depiction of a child and internal organs - all of which are affected by obesity and type 2 diabetes.


Obesity affects almost every organ system and can lead to:


Cardiovascular disease

High blood pressure

Lung diseases such as asthma and sleep apnea

Fatty liver disease

Gallstones

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Metabolic syndrome

Type 2 diabetes

Polycystic ovarian syndrome

Infertility problems

Joint problems

High cholesterol and lipids

Increased risk for cancer - The National Cancer Institute has associated 13 different cancers with obesity.


What is the cause of this?


The emergence and availability of ultra-processed foods and increased sugar consumption are significant contributors. Added sugars from fructose and high-fructose corn syrup are damaging our health. 


During the low-fat craze of the 1970s and 80s, when fat was thought to cause heart disease, food manufacturers began lowering the fat content of food to create low-fat and fat-free options. Removing fat decreased the palatability of these foods, so they increased the sugar content to improve the taste. This dramatically increased sugar consumption in this country. That, combined with more ultra-processed foods, fast-food restaurants, and sugar-sweetened beverages, increased overall calorie consumption. Food became more energy-dense and nutrient-depleted, so even eating a similar volume of food, the calories and sugar increased. Processed and fast foods are energy-dense - loaded with calories, added sugars, and saturated fats. They lack fiber and nutrients but certainly don’t lack calories. 


Ironically, we later learned that sugar and saturated fats contribute to heart disease. Excess sugar is converted to triglycerides in the liver, leading to cardiovascular disease.


Consuming these energy-dense foods also creates cravings for more. It is a vicious cycle; people have become food and sugar addicts. An increase in sugar consumption actually triggers pleasure centers in the brain, similar to drugs. 



THE CURE IS NOT SIMPLY TO EAT LESS BUT TO EAT BETTER!



Many factors contribute to obesity development. These include genetic factors, psychological factors, too little activity, consuming too many calories for one’s size and age, socioeconomic factors, and certain medications or health conditions. We cannot control all these entirely, but we can control our food choices and purchases. 


Photo of a person standing on a scale holding a donut and an apple. Making better food choices is at the heart of obesity prevention. Both the donut and the apple have sugar, but the apple has natural (not added) sugar along with vitamins and fiber.


The food and beverage industries have done a remarkable job marketing junk to our kids. Look at all the breakfast cereals marketed to children - they are loaded with sugar. Consider the Coke/Pepsi wars. Think about the celebrities that are part of the appeal. Healthy foods are advertised less than 3% of the time compared to junk. These companies spend billions annually to brainwash our kids. It works. Studies show that children exposed to these ads crave foods they have never tasted!


Unfortunately, there is no accountability or regard for children’s health. Parents have to be the ones to fight this by not putting money into the processed food industry’s pockets. Why should we support these companies that are ruining our children’s health?


So what can we do to fight this?


We can and should demand better. We, the consumers, are the ones who will bring about change. It begins with education and creating awareness to know what needs changing and how to change it. 


I will outline steps to take now to prevent disease later over the next few weeks. We could conceivably improve this trend in one generation, by starting young and making these changes early. However, it is never too late to begin. Stay tuned!


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