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Childhood obesity – the facts

Childhood obesity is a major problem in the UK, as it is in much of the developing world. The most recent figures published in December 2009 show that 22.8% of reception children and 32.6% of year 6 children are either overweight or obese.

However shocking these numbers may be, the very fact that we have this data is a good start in our fight against childhood obesity. British school children are regularly weighed and measured and the results sent to their parents along with advice on diet and exercise. This government funded initiative has proved moderately successful, with the rapid rise in childhood obesity beginning to level off.

This article on childhood obesity is by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.


What causes childhood obesity?

In the vast majority of cases, childhood obesity is not so much a disease as a social issue. In rare instances, however, there may be a glandular problem, or other underlying medical condition, which leads to excessive weight gain.

Most childhood obesity, however, is caused by the simple problem of eating too much and exercising too little. As children ‘play out’ less and spend more time indoors, watching TV or playing computer games, their energy intake will naturally pass their energy requirement and they will gain weight. What’s more, children who spend their time on indoor pursuits are more likely to snack while doing it, as the food sources are readily available.

Treating it at home

Overcoming the problem of childhood obesity requires input from a range of people, from parents and teachers who promote a healthier lifestyle, to GPs and health workers who can play an active role in managing children’s weight through special diets, goal setting and rewards.

There have been some high profile campaigns in recent years aimed at encouraging both adults and children to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Programmes such as Change4Life and the 20-year MEND programme are designed to help families to work together towards a better diet and more exercise through small but significant changes. For example, Change4Life send out packs with activity planners and snack wheels that suggest healthy alternatives to fatty or high-calorie snacks.

Professional intervention

Re-education and behavioural changes in the home can go a long way towards turning the tide of childhood obesity. However, in some cases, professional help will be required. Your GP will be able to put you in touch with your local specialist team if you feel your children are losing the battle with their weight.

The principles of this help will remain the same but the way it is delivered will involve more formal assessment of the problem, goal setting and monitoring. The child, and often the parents too, will attend weekly meetings, either one-to-one or in groups. Here they will learn a range of weight management skills including portion control, basic nutrition and how to control their cravings. Parents will get guidance about what food to keep in the house and how to provide healthy alternatives to popular children’s meals. These sessions will also set exercise goals to complement the new dietary regime.

Surgical intervention

While it may seem an extreme option, the use of surgical intervention should not be ruled out in the treatment of childhood obesity. Obese children often suffer enormous psychological distress from their peers, which can cause a vicious circle of comfort eating. Stopping this before it becomes a major risk to health is vital, and if all the conventional methods have failed, surgery should be considered for the sake of the child.

The same weight control surgeries that work for obese adults are also effective in childhood obesity. Procedures such as gastric banding and gastric bypass can both result in significant weight loss, and in the case of gastric banding, can be fully reversed with no long term effects.

However, since the correct nutrition is critical to childhood growth and development, it is important that the child’s diet is monitored closely if these procedures are used. At the very least they should take regular and appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements.

The future

Tackling childhood obesity is vital for the future health of our country. If the poor dietary and exercise habits developed in youth are carried forward into adulthood, then they can have serious consequences, including heart disease, and a range of other medical problems.

The Foresight report concludes that unless sustained efforts are made to treat childhood obesity, the number of children who are either overweight or obese could rise as high as 50% by 2050. Fortunately, the most recent figures would suggest that the efforts currently being made by the government and other agencies are having an effect in stabilising the problem well short of this figure. However, we all must continue to play our role in maintaining the principles of healthy eating and exercise for our children if this success is to be sustained.

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Childhood obesity – the facts
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