Overweight boy consulting with doctor in office

Childhood Obesity: Symptoms, Causes and More

02/02/2022

Childhood obesity, which was once considered a problem of high-income countries and societies, is now rapidly increasing in middle-income and low-income countries as well. Obesity in children is a condition in which children and adolescents are overweight and carry an extra amount of fats in their bodies than normal.

It must be considered a serious condition as it increases the risk of health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. Childhood obesity not only affects physical health but also impacts the mental health of children due to poor self-esteem and depression. Several factors may be responsible for childhood obesity, although dietary habits remain the main causative factor. Therefore, it is important to understand the risk factors and adopt appropriate lifestyle measures to prevent childhood obesity and protect your child’s health.

Childhood Obesity Causes

The following factors can increase the risk of childhood obesity:

Diet

It is one of the major factors associated with childhood obesity. Children are generally more inclined towards diets with high amounts of fats and sugars. Regular consumption of high-calorie foods such as baked foods, stored foods, candies, desserts, sugary drinks, etc., can lead to excessive weight gain in children.

Lack of physical activity

Children with a lack of physical activity tend to be lazy and are more likely to put on weight as they don’t burn enough calories. Children who spend too much time in indoor sedentary activities such as playing video games and constantly watching television do not show interest in physical activities, thus tend to gain more weight.

Family history

When parents of children are obese/overweight, children are more likely to be obese as genes can pass on. Additionally, when children grow up in environments where high-calorie foods are frequently encouraged and available, they get accustomed to these habits and put on more weight.

Psychological factors

Stress due to personal, parental, and family-related issues can increase children’s risk of obesity. Moreover, some children tend to overeat to overcome stress and boredom, which further increases their weight.

Socioeconomic factors

Some families may be living in areas where they do not have adequate access to resources for a healthy diet. Thus, they may consume convenience foods such as frozen meals, which result in unnecessary calories.

Medical conditions like hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease, and other genetic syndromes are to be considered as a cause of obesity.

Childhood Obesity Symptoms

It is important to keep in mind that all children carrying extra pounds are not overweight. Some children may just present with larger body frames than average, which is normal because the number of fats in children’s bodies vary at different stages of development.

Thus, you may not always know that your child is obese just by physical appearance. Measuring the body mass index (BMI), which provides the accepted weight according to a child’s height, is a guideline considered to identify obesity/overweight in children.

Some signs and symptoms you may watch out for are:

  • Growth charts and BMI show abnormal and excessive weight.
  • Stretch marks on hips and abdomen.
  • Fatty tissue deposition in the breast area is generally an issue for boys.
  • Shortness of breath during sleep and when physically active.
  • Early puberty and irregular menstrual cycles in girls.
  • Delayed puberty in boys.

Treatment and Prevention of Childhood Obesity

Treatment of childhood obesity is based on age and associated medical conditions. It generally includes changes in eating habits and an increase in the amount of physical activity. In some cases, treatment may include weight maintenance programs, medications or weight-loss surgeries, depending on the severity.

The following are some lifestyle measures that aid in both the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity:

Change in eating habits

It is important for parents to encourage and provide an environment with healthy eating habits as parental influence impacts children’s eating habits. Cut down on fast foods/stores and prepare freshly cooked meals. Try to centre your meals and snacks around fruits and vegetables, make fresh juices, include a lean protein such as chicken and fish, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, whole-wheat pasta and whole-grain bread. Set appropriate portion sizes for your child and allows them to eat until they are full.

Encourage physical activity

The first step is to limit screen time for children to not more than 2 hours a day. Ensure that your child is moderately or vigorously active for at least one hour in the day. Identify activities/sports that your child would be interested in, and find activities that can involve your whole family to make it more enjoyable for children.

The activities could be anything from playing tag or hide and seek to even hiking, climbing a tree or just walking in the neighbourhood to buy something.

Provide mental support

Avoid negative comments about your child’s appearance, and do not encourage anyone who indulges in the same. Praise all the efforts your child is making to eat healthily and increase physical activity. Talk to your children about their feelings and encourage them towards positive goals.

Dr Kumar Thulasidass
General Medicine - Endocrinology
Senior Consultant – Department of Endocrinology
MBBS, MD (General Medicine), MRCP (UK), MRCP (Endocrinology and Diabetes)

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