Childhood Obesity- Whose fault is it?

Hello everyone!

Today’s topic is somewhat different than my usual blogs, a bit more serious. Last week, my friends and I had a long discussion about the globally growing problem that is obesity in children and who is ultimately responsible for it.

Childhood obesity is basically abnormal or excessive fat accumulation in children that may impair their health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared childhood obesity one of the biggest public health threats of the 21st century. In 2016, over 340 million children aged 5-19 from all around the world were deemed obese or overweight, which suggests that the numbers have dramatically increased from just 4% in 1975 to over 18% in 2016. In 2019, over 38 million children under the age 5 were found to be overweight or obese. I can’t say on behalf of anyone else, but I think these are quite HUGE and very worrying numbers.

Once what was considered to be a high-income country problem, has now become a worldwide issue with obesity numbers rising in low- and middle-income countries as well. In Africa, the number of obese children under 5 has increased by nearly 24% since 2000. Almost half of the children under 5 who were obese in 2019 lived in Asia.

Worldobesity published a global childhood obesity atlas in 2019 which predicted a humongous number of 250 million children worldwide to suffer obesity by 2030, and if you look at the statistics, most of the countries on the list are either low- or mid-income, developing countries.

Childhood Obesity in India

Now, the association of India and childhood obesity may sound paradoxical in itself, I mean, India is constantly combating poverty and nutritional deficiency. However, colour me surprised! Recent studies have shown that with around 14.4 million (in 2019) obese or overweight children, India has the second-highest number of obese children in the world, next to China. The prevalence of the issue in Indian children is 15% overall, and even worse, 35-40% in private schools catering to upper-income families.

Dangers of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity can lead to a range of medical and psychological issues in a child. Some of which include:

  • Type-2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Asthma
  • Sleep apnoea
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Menstrual abnormalities
  • Eating disorders (anorexia or bulimia)
  • Depression and anxiety
  • increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse later in life
  • inability to connect with others

Now that I’ve made myself and all you readers depressed by all these numbers and the dire health implications, an important question arises!

Whom to blame for this global epidemic at rising?

According to a survey SERMO conducted on 2,258 doctors, it was revealed that around 69% of the participants believed parents are either completely or mostly to blame for childhood obesity. Some of the feedback received from the survey is shown below.

While it is likely true that in some instances excessive childhood weight is genetic, it’s hard not to think that in most cases the etiology is environmental. The most important component of that environment is parental control. Obesity is more a result of diet than exercise (as many have found, it is very difficult to “work off” excess consumption). Whether it is giving a young child a large bag of potato chips to keep him quiet in the store, or insisting she eat all her dinner, then give her dessert or multiple additional snacks, many parents have abandoned their responsibility to make the right decisions regarding their children’s health in exchange for expediency.

– A gynecologist

Clearly, parents need to shoulder some of the responsibility, and the blame. As parents, we have to set an example and to promote within our families healthy eating and healthy exercise. However, children are beset on all sides by their non-parental environment as well, which includes access to cheap, high-caloric foods; glitzy advertisements; a raft of screen and video entertainment; low-nutritional value school lunches; and on and on. Parents can be perfect role models, and still lose in this effort. But at least they stack the odds more favorably for their kids.

-A pediatrician 

If I’m being completely honest, I do not find the survey results that surprising. Afterall, in case of young children, parents are the authoritative figures who more or less decide what their kids eat, at least when they’re at home. Furthermore, children start learning from their parents at an early age. I’ve heard one of my elder cousin describe her kids as a couple of sponges that absorb everything haha! And their eating habits aren’t an exception. It is quite possible that parents who have more than likely grown up with unhealthy eating habits themselves are now passing the same habits onto their children.

Researchers have found that children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if their parents do, and the same can be said about the consumption of fast food and soda. According to researchers at UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, everyday over 62% of California adolescents consume soda and around 43% eat fast food, but only 38% eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables. According to the National Child Measuring Program, in the year 2016-2017, more than one in five children were obese when they started school in England. The fact that these children are already overweight or obese by the time they start school means the damage is being done at home.

Additionally, Dr. Joseph Galati, author of the book “Eating yourself sick“, also mentions that the root problem is that parents aren’t paying enough attention to what they feed their kids, there aren’t enough home-cooked meals in their diet. He urges parents to step up and take responsibility, and the doctors to be more forceful with their assessments.

Are parents entirely to blame?

Humans have tendency to blame others for their own misfortune, but how much of that blame is in truth valid? Afterall, there are other factors at work here which are beyond the parents’ control. First of all, there’s the genetic component. Genetics tend to account for 25-40% of one’s hereditary body weight or BMI. Moreover, the nutritional value of food we eat daily has decreased drastically over the course of last century. The excessive use of sugar, salt, preservatives and fat content in the food we consume is nothing to ignore!

However, there are several ways to fight with this growing issue and the trends associated with it.

  1. Family dinner: A study of 8,550 4-year olds showed that those who regularly ate dinner as a family were 40% less likely to be obese.
  2. Screen-free zones: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests employing screen-free zones in kids’ bedrooms and limiting the time spent on TV or video games to an hour or two a day.
  3. Physical activities: At least an hour of aerobic, muscle and bone-strengthening activities like skipping rope or gymnastics.
  4. A reward system (ideally not an unhealthy food item): Keeping a point system to reward your children for respecting the rules set out for screen-time, diet and physical activities. Like, letting them choose the movie for a family movie night or a place they want to visit.

As a closing remark, I’d like to know your thoughts on this issue and the associated blame-game.

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