The Obesity Epidemic in Children
Updated: Aug 7
We have been in an obesity epidemic in pediatrics, thirty years in the making - the same amount of time I was in practice. I watched this evolve and recognized its impact when I saw never before seen adult diseases emerge in children. This trend is no longer uncommon. The scariest part is that it is shortening the lifespan of those born now and in the past decade.
On average, a child today weighs 11 pounds more than a child of the 1970s.
The emergence and availability of processed foods and increased sugar consumption have been significant contributors. Added sugars, especially from fructose and high-fructose corn syrup, are damaging our children's health.
Junk Food Contributors to Obesity!
The trend that we see now is the epidemic of severe obesity - an 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. A newly recommended treatment for severe obesity in adolescents is bariatric surgery. I find this startling!
Type 2 diabetes - once referred to as adult-type diabetes and associated with insulin resistance - is now the more prominent diabetes in children. This was unheard of in kids twenty years ago. Current statistics state that 1 in 5 children and adolescents are obese and 1 in 8 preschoolers.
Obesity affects almost every organ system and can lead to:
High blood pressure
Lung disease such as asthma and sleep apnea
Fatty liver disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Type 2 diabetes
Polycystic ovarian syndrome
High cholesterol and lipids
Increase risk for cancer - The National Cancer Institute associates 13 different cancers with obesity.
THE CURE IS NOT SIMPLY TO EAT LESS BUT TO EAT BETTER!
EXAMPLES OF NUTRIENT-DENSE (left) VS ENERGY-DENSE FOODS (right)
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 of these entirely, but we can control our food choices and purchases.
fast-food became more prevalent,
processed foods became readily and cheaply available, and
time became more constrained with two working parents and children’s activities -----
meals became an item of convenience, and drive-thru dinners commonplace. Processed and fast foods are energy-dense - loaded with calories, added sugars, salt, and saturated fats. They lack fiber and nutrients but certainly don’t lack calories.
Nutrient-dense foods are not processed - think fruit, vegetables, and whole grains - natural, whole, and wholesome foods that contain fiber and nutrients with a lower calorie content. These foods are dense in, or loaded with, the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy, and with fewer calories.
Sugar intake in children, in particular in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, is the primary contributor to excessive sugar intake in kids. Excess sugar intake leads to high triglycerides, weight gain, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular disease. Children have stopped drinking water as their primary beverage due to the availability of sodas, juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavored “dessert” coffees, etc. The sugar content in ONE of these drinks can exceed the recommended amount of added sugar in the diet for a day. The number of calories in ONE of these drinks consumed daily can add a pound of weight a week.
I don’t advocate artificial sweeteners either, as these contain chemicals that we probably shouldn’t consume.
Artificial sweeteners, like sugar:
drive insulin levels up
increase appetite and
lead to cravings for more sweetness.
That sweet tooth can be satisfied with fresh fruit and healthy sweet treats.
I started this blog with the goal of improving children's health. I want to show parents (and all ages) how to make dietary changes to help prevent obesity and improve the health of your children. Making gradual and simple changes can be very effective in slowing weight gain and decreasing one's risk for disease.
Stay tuned next week for ideas for healthy desserts!