The Growing Problem of Child Obesity

With 22 million children in the world under the age of five classified as overweight, parents must confront the causes of childhood obesity
By Donna Cobban

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While the United States may well be the epicentre of obesity, the rest of the world seems to be playing a fast catch-up game. According to the Chronic Diseases of Lifestyle Research Unit in South Africa, childhood obesity is an increasing problem worldwide with 22 million children under the age of five being classified as overweight. In South Africa 17.1 percent of children between the ages of one and nine living in urban areas are overweight. The reasons are vast and varied and the results of scientific inquiry just as diverse.
New research suggests that children of women who smoked while pregnant may be more likely to be obese in their late teenage years. Other new research links the obesity gene, known as TMEM18, to the current obesity crisis, but there are those who dispute this and claim children of obese parents become obese because they emulate the behaviour of the over-eating parent. Not so, say others; it is all decided months before the egg is even fertilised. Scientists claim that if a woman is overweight before becoming pregnant, her child is nearly three times more likely to be overweight by age seven, compared to a child whose mother was not overweight or obese. And while blame is being dished out, let’s not spare the busy working parent who grabs convenience food on the way home, which is often laden with trans fats and more than likely served in a larger quantity than the child needs.
Further, and equally fascinating research, was the theory of a “thrifty gene” put forward by geneticist James Neel in 1962. His thinking is based on the fact that populations have for thousands of years relied on farming, hunting and fishing as a means of obtaining food, which resulted in periods of feast and famine. Neel proposed that these extremes in calorie intake resulted in people developing a “thrifty gene” that allowed the storage of fat during the feast periods in order to survive the famine. While helpful long ago, this gene now appears to work against those who live a Western lifestyle with an uninterrupted supply of calories and lack of physical activity, leading to unhealthy amounts of fat being stored for a famine that may indeed never arrive.
You Are What You Eat
Whether it is the “thrifty gene” at work or not, Alison Lang, a Johannesburg-based clinical dietician specialising in paediatrics, believes the prevalence of certain foods and the ever-increasing frequency with which they are consumed may contribute to the obesity crisis. These commonly include convenience foods such as fish fingers, two-minute noodles, processed cereals, chicken nuggets, crisps, chips and sausages, along with excess calories found in iced teas, juices, flavoured water and fizzy drinks. Sadly, she says, she rarely sees the recommended “five fruit and vegetables a day” ever achieved.
Cape Town-based dietician Deborah Hoepfl believes there are some essentials of healthy eating that can significantly reduce obesity levels. These include having breakfast every morning, enjoying dinner together around a table every evening, choosing water as the family’s drink of choice, reducing TV time, maintaining an hour of moderate daily exercise, enjoying five fruit and vegetables daily, and not being forced to finish everything on your plate so you learn to self-regulate your appetite.
Interestingly, Hoepfl debunks the notion that obesity is largely genetic, explaining that there are indeed incidences where both parents are of a normal weight but the child is overweight. In these situations she recommends that the whole family adapt their lifestyle to accommodate the overweight child, with parents acting as role models for healthy eating and an active lifestyle.
This is perhaps an easier path to tread than the “obesity runs in the family” premise. This, according to Hoepfl, suggests that if a child under 10 has one obese parent, it doubles the child’s chances of developing adult obesity. If both parents are obese, there is an 80 per cent chance the child will be obese. This sounds alarming, but the good news is that it is easier to change a child’s eating habits than it is to change an adult’s.
According to research by BUPA, a British-based health-insurance company, children should not be put on strict diets but rather helped to maintain their current weight through a healthy eating plan and increased exercise. This then allows them to grow into that weight, as they get taller. In addition to this, BUPA warns that parents should never put a child on a weight-loss diet without medical advice, as this can affect their growth.
Living Off the Fat of the Land
So there it is: endless research, testing, case studies, group studies, nation studies and published results about the causes of obesity. Among all of these, though, are two questions posed by American doctor David Katz, an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management and the prevention of chronic disease, that require reflection. “Why,” he asks, “are we eating ourselves to death?” And secondly: “Why would a putatively intelligent species do such a thing?” His answer is succinct: “Because we can.” There are, he says, many explanations one might invoke, “from the cost of food, to its energy density, to stress, hectic schedules, technology and advertising.” But, he says, it all comes back to the most fundamental explanation of all. “Animals, including us, tend to get fat when circumstances allow. Circumstances have never so generously allowed for obesity as they now do.”
Food For Thought
Portion size has apparently been on the rise for a while. US researchers recently studied depictions of The Last Supper painted over the past 1 000 years, and found that the size of the main meals grew by 69 per cent and plate size by 66 per cent from the oldest painting (done in 1000 AD) and the most recent (1700s) paintings.
Doing the Maths
Classifying obesity in adults is easy: a BMI (the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in metres) of more than 25 is classified as overweight and a BMI greater than 30 is classified as obese. For children, however, the calculation is more complicated. A child’s BMI should be plotted on a BMI chart, which takes differences in age, sex and pubertal status into account.
According to the International Obesity Task Force a BMI between the 85th and 94th percentile for age and sex is defined as overweight and a BMI at or greater than the 95th percentile is classified as obese.
Parents who are concerned about their child’s weight should consult their GP or paediatrician.


Obesity solution wrote 7 years 27 weeks ago

Obesity in children can be very difficult to control. A good solution is to train your children how to exercise daily and also eat healthy food.

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