With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating our lives for the past 20 months, it may be easy to forget that there is another global health crisis right under our noses: obesity. Obesity is a chronic disease that affects approximately 650 million adults worldwide.
Officially recognized as a disease since 2013, adult obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. In the US, 70 million adults are obese. About 350 million children are obese around the world, and 14.4 million of those children are in the US. One in three children in the country is overweight or obese.
Because children are always growing, growth curves are used to evaluate a child’s weight, height, and BMI. Overweight children have a BMI greater than 85% of children their age, and obese children have a BMI greater than 95% of their age.
Children who are obese are at greater risk of developing chronic metabolic diseases, including prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and polycystic ovarian syndrome, in addition to joint pain, acid reflux and sleep apnea. Diseases that were once thought of as diseases of adulthood and aging now affect children as young as 6 years old!
Childhood obesity is also associated with behavioral and emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, bullying and social isolation. Of course, none of us want to see children and adolescents suffering with very serious problems that can shorten their lives.
Many factors contribute to the development of obesity, including genetics, lack of exercise, hormonal imbalance, poor sleep, certain medications, stress and socioeconomic status, but the biggest factor is the high intake of ultra-refined, ultra-processed foods.
A recently published study found that the majority of American youth’s daily caloric intake came from ultra-processed foods such as sweet and salty packaged snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, commercially made breads and cereals, and heat-and-eat dishes such as pastas, pizzas and cold cuts. These items contain high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, flavor enhancers, dyes and emulsifiers not used in mainstream cooking.
Children diagnosed with overweight or obesity can work with a specially trained, qualified health care professional to make changes, help improve their health, and reduce their risk of developing some of the diseases listed above. Pediatric caregivers who have advanced training through the National Obesity Medicine Association, Board Certification or the Certificate of Advanced Education are well qualified to assist.
Healthy nutrition is the mainstay of treating pediatric cases of overweight and obesity, but there is no one-size-fits-all plan. One of the most important changes is eliminating refined and processed foods and switching to vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes (beans), lean, unprocessed meats and drinking mainly water, which will go a long way in improving weight and the health.
In future articles, we will discuss nutritional recommendations in more detail and provide additional tools to aid in the treatment of overweight and obesity pediatric conditions, including physical activity, adequate sleep and sleep disorder treatment, eating behaviors, stress management, and medications.
You are the key to helping your child maintain or regain their health!