Seventy years ago, obesity in children was virtually unheard of. In fact, the opposite was true. During World War II, food shortages and rationing meant that many children were skinny because they literally couldn’t get enough to eat. Today, food is plentiful and we import food from all over the world. While this has solved one problem, it has created another. With plentiful food and a more sedentary lifestyle, obesity in children and adults has become a real problem.
This article on obesity in children is by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.
How widespread is obesity in children?
The statistics are very shocking. The latest figures from a national measuring scheme that weighs children as they start primary and then secondary school show that the rate of obesity in children aged 11 is currently around 32.6%. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in the 1940s but it doesn’t even compare very favourably with statistics from less than a decade ago. In 2001, a Commons Health Committee estimated that the rate of obesity in children was only 15% in 15-year olds. This means we have seen obesity in children double in the last 10 years.
The highest rates
Although 1 in 3 children at secondary school are now clinically obese, the rate of obesity in children far younger than 11 is also a real worry. One in every six children – around 17% - is dangerously overweight in some parts of the UK before they even start primary school. The highest rates of obesity in children under 5 years old were seen in Stockton-on-Tees in the north east. Children here are four times more likely to become obese at a very young age compared to children of the same age who live in Sussex.
Obesity is fast becoming the biggest health challenge of the western world – and developing countries are starting to see it as they become more affluent. A typical ‘western’ diet that is high in processed, high-fat and sugar-rich foods is very high in calories but very low in vitamins, essential minerals and fibre. It can lead to obsessive eating because refined white sugar and white flour has an additive effect in the brain in some people who are particularly susceptible. Food cravings lead to overeating and, if children or adults also take very little exercise, the result is a rapid gain in weight.
Over time, the poor nutrition, coupled with developing obesity, put great stress on the body. Many different chronic illnesses are linked with obesity in adults:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Asthma and breathing problems
- Some types of cancer
- Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease
- Circulatory problems
All of these health problems are currently more common in people in middle age who are overweight or obese. However, there is growing evidence that as obesity in children increases, these sorts of chronic illnesses will plague them in their 20s and 30s, not in their 50s. Worryingly, type 2 diabetes, which is usually found in people over 40, is becoming more common in teenagers. In addition, obesity in children leads to further problems as the body of the child is put under strain as it is still growing. Problems in the bones and joints, including bow legs, gallbladder disease, polycystic ovary syndrome and poor vision are all caused by obesity in children.
The government is worried that the escalation of chronic illnesses in young adults with growing families, who are important contributors to the economy, will cause very serious social issues. For one thing, the National Health Service will be overwhelmed – and this is projected to happen sometime between 2020 and 2030.
What can be done?
The British Heart Foundation has recently called on the government in the UK to be much clearer in its advice about how much exercise children need every day if the current rise in obesity in children is to be stopped. At present, school-age children get some exercise but nowhere near the 60 minutes a day that the BHF say is needed to keep the heart healthy – and to keep the weight from piling on. As they quite rightly point out, preventing obesity in children is always going to be more effective than tackling it once it has become a problem.
Experts agree that promoting regular exercise and a great awareness of what makes up a healthy diet is useful. However, some think that the problem of obesity in children starts virtually from birth and health education for parents should be a priority. Research has shown that obesity in children is lower if they are breastfed for at least six months from birth. Bottle-fed children show much higher rates of obesity.
The key seems to be that education is important for everyone. Today’s generation of young parents needs to become more aware of the dangers of eating highly processed foods and doing virtually no exercise – for the sake of their own health and that of their children.