In Africa, the plumpness of a child is usually seen as a sign of good living, when these children may not actually be healthy. Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges in this century, and it is steadily on the rise – affecting many low and middle income countries in the world. In 2016, the number of overweight children, under the age of five was estimated to be over 41 million. One quarter of those children live in Africa.
Obesity can be defined as the abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. Most obesity is caused by excessive daily caloric intake relative to daily caloric expenditure. Experts say excessive caloric intake is most common with poor food quality choices, for example, fast foods – which are high in fat and sugar calories. However, research also show that it can result from over-ingestion of healthy foods. John Mersch MD, a board-certified paediatrician asserts that biologically, all excessive calories, should it be from Pizza or fat free yoghourt, will be stored by the body and only as fat.
The worldwide prevalence of obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016. The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents from ages 5-19 has dramatically increased from just 4% in 1975 to 18% in 2016. While just 1% of children and teenagers between ages 5-19 were obese in 1975, in 2016, more than 124 children within the same age bracket were obese. What could be the reason for this prevalence and rise in childhood obesity?
One of the first reasons that comes to mind is the global shift in diet towards increased intake of energy dense food that are high in fats and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other healthy micro-nutrients.
Another reason for the prevalence of childhood obesity is the trend that has seemingly been created by technology. There is a dearth of physical activity in the daily routine of many urban children these days; many schools have limited athletic activities. When this is added to the excessive time spent watching T.V and playing video games, not to forget the amount of time spent surfing the internet, children barely have the time to burn the calories that they are taking in.
Genetics is also another reason for obesity in children. Certain genetic syndromes like the Prada-Willis syndrome have been associated with obese children. However, it’s important to note, that experts do not credit the prevalence of childhood obesity to genetics, as research shows that the gene pool has barely changed for 30 years. Most recent studies however indicate that if one parent is obese, then the likelihood of having an obese child is three times higher than otherwise. If both parents are obese, the likelihood is 10 times higher.
Diseases may also contribute to childhood obesity. Diseases like Polycystic Ovary Disease, brain tumour, Thyroid disease, and mental retardation may contribute to childhood obesity, although in a very small way.
Some medications like chronic oral steroids, some antidepressants and some other drugs may also contribute to childhood obesity.
There is also a psychological view to the cause and prevalence of childhood obesity as most people tend to overeat in order to deal with an emotionally upsetting situation or lifestyle.
The World Health Organisation associates the increase in childhood obesity prevalence with societal changes. According to WHO, even though childhood obesity is mainly associated with unhealthy eating and low levels of physical activities, the problem does not lie with children’s behaviour alone but also with the social and economic development and policies in areas of agriculture, transport, urban planning, food processing, distribution and marketing as well as education.
Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity as adults. This is because overweight and obese children are more likely to stay obese into adulthood and develop non-communicable diseases like:
Cardiovascular diseases – mainly heart diseases and stroke
Musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis
Certain cancers like endometrial, breast and colon cancers
Apart from these future risks, obese children experience breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, and early markers of cardiovascular disease, psychological effects and increased risks of premature death.
Childhood obesity is preventable. On an individual level, parents can do the following:
Limit energy intake from fats and sugars that children consume
Increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts with children
Shift their fat consumptions away from saturated fats to unsaturated fats.
Make sure that they stay physically active. You can introduce at least 60 minutes of a regular moderate to vigorous-intensity activity each day that is developmentally appropriate. This could even be a play time at school, where they play hard.
It is important to note that individual responsibility can only have its full effect when people have the access to a healthy lifestyle. So, at the societal level, it’s important that we encourage people in following the recommendations listed above. Better policies, regulations and infrastructure that aid physical activities for kids like recreational parks, where they can run around and expend energy under the guidance of parents or care givers. Also, placing a tax on sugar sweetened beverages might help in curbing their intake.
Unlike most adults, children and adolescents cannot choose the environment they live in or the food they eat. They also have a limited ability to understand the long term consequences of their behaviour. Therefore, they require special attention so that they don’t join the statistics of childhood obesity.