According to major health organizations, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. When I’ve brought up childhood weight or obesity in the past, often I’m attacked by parents or other individuals who think I shouldn’t have brought the topic up at all.
As I’ve noted before, weight, and child weight in particular is a very taboo topic.
A key comment I get from people is that, “I shouldn’t compare weight to health.” There’s a big campaign in America about healthy bodies at every size, which seem to support the ideal that no matter your weight you can be healthy (or not). In some ways this campaign is right on the money. For example, thin kids can be extremely unhealthy. Slender kids may not exercise or may smoke or drink a lot or do any number of unhealthy things, and yes, slender kids get sick. I’ve seen my fair share of average or skinny sized kids with unhealthy habits.
I 100% agree that health, by no means, is all about numbers on the scale.
However, I also don’t agree with people who tell me, “Being overweight is not unhealthy – you can’t judge a child’s health by his weight.”
There is a massive growing collection of research that does say that overweight kids are at risk for many health problems that can be directly related to numbers on the scale. I think ALL kids, regardless of weight need to build healthy habits, with help from their parents. Still the fact that thin kids can be unhealthy DOES NOT cancel out the fact that excess weight creates some major health risks for kids. These are two very different issues.
Think it’s healthy for kids to be overweight? It’s not.
Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on the health and well-being of children, including the following:
- Obesity in America notes that excess weight in kids can cause liver, lung, heart and musculoskeletal complications. They also note it’s estimated that one-third of children born in 2000 will develop obesity-related diabetes.
- The Mayo Clinic notes that complications of childhood obesity are many. Kids are at risk for Type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders, a higher risk for stroke and heart attack later in life, asthma, hormone imbalances plus a slew of combination issues such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and excess abdominal fat which can result in heart disease.
- According to the World Health Organization, being overweight as an adult or child can cause debilitating health problems such as respiratory difficulties, chronic musculoskeletal problems, skin problems and infertility later in life. The more life-threatening problems fall into four main areas: CVD problems; conditions associated with insulin resistance such as type 2 diabetes; certain types of cancers, especially the hormonally related and large-bowel cancers; and gallbladder disease.
- WHO also says that a raised BMI increases the risks of cancer of the breast, colon, prostate, endometroium, kidney and gallbladder. Being overweight and obesity also contribute significantly to osteoarthritis, a major cause of disability in adults.
- WHO further notes that while Type 2 Diabetes has been confined to older adults for most of the 20th century, it now affects many obese children even before puberty.
- A 1999 study by Freedman and colleagues, found that nearly 60% of overweight children had at least one cardiovascular risk factor, while 25% of overweight children had two or more cardiovascular risk factors. To compare, only 10% of children who are at a healthy weight have a cardiovascular risk factor.
- Research out this past summer shows that overweight children as young as two-years of age are now showing signs of metabolic syndrome, a condition that can lead to heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Risks for overweight youth
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes the following risks for overweight youth…
- Hyperlipidemia – basically an entire group of disorders characterized by elevated levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and/or low density lipoproteins (LDL) and low levels of high density lipoproteins (HDL) in the blood. This puts overweight children at a higher risk risk for cardiovascular disease and premature death in adulthood.
- Glucose intolerance, or rather, the precursor of diabetes.
- Hepatic steatosis or the fatty degeneration of your child’s liver.
- 50% of cases of Cholelithiasis (presence of stones in the gallbladder) in youth are associated with excessive weight.
- Hypertension, or persistently elevated blood pressure is not very frequent in children, yet it occurs nine times more frequently among children who are overweight as compared with other children.
- Acute complications that overweight kids and teens may experience include, sleep apnea, the rare but possible Pseudotumor cerebri (head tumor) and a variety of orthopedic complications affecting the feet, legs and hips.
Other health issues related to excessive weight in kids and teens
- Trouble sleeping.
- Depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
- Bone and joint problems plus the development of unhealthy dieting habits and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia (source).
- Menstrual problems in young girls and later in life.
A ton of research shows that overweight youth are at a higher risk for social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem. Some studies show that overweight kids miss out on positive childhood experiences as well, such as being able to run and play easily, or have normal social interactions with peers.
One study tracking thousands of children through adulthood found that the heaviest kids were more than twice as likely as the thinnest to die prematurely of illness or a self-inflicted injury. According to other major research, the cumulative effect of obesity is that our kids belong to the first generation ever with a predicted shorter life span than their parents.
It goes beyond health risks
On top of the childhood health issues, obese children are more likely to become obese adults and if children are overweight, obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe. A recent CDC report (pdf) shows that $150 billion a year, or almost 10% of the national medical budget is being spent on obesity-related care. In fact, obesity costs have almost caught up with smoking related health care costs.
“Love every body” and support all kids but be realistic
As shown above, and in countless other studies I didn’t link to, excessive weight has been linked time and time again to major health problems, many that can result in an early death.
It’s perfectly fine to love everyone regardless of size or shape. It’s great to think big is beautiful. It’s smart to support confidence in kids, no matter what.
That said, big is less than beautiful when it results in a child with diabetes, heart disease or other health problems. Get realistic. Support health for all kids, but admit that supporting healthy kids means admitting that excess childhood weight poses very real health risks for kids.
To ignore this issue means we’re failing kids who need support.
When we hide weight issues from kids, when we say, “It’s perfectly healthy to be overweight,” we are sentencing this generation and future generations to health issues.
What do you think? Are overweight kids healthy? Should we ignore childhood weight issues?