America is currently in the grip of an epidemic that threatens the health of future generations. The CDC reports that, as of 2008, nearly 20 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 11 and 18 percent of teenagers were obese.
Over the past three decades, the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled. If this trend continues, experts predict 86 percent of the nation’s adults will be overweight or obese by the year 2030.
Obesity has both short-term and long-term effects on the health and well being of children, subjecting them to a wide range of psychological issues and health problems.
- Children who are overweight or obese are more likely to be affected by low self-esteem and a lack of self confidence, often because they are bullied or made to feel different by other children. They frequently also suffer from depression.
- Obesity increases the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which can lead to cardiovascular disease later in life.
- Obesity can cause pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, type 2 diabetes was once called adult-onset diabetes because it occurred only in adults, but it is now on the rise among children due to the obesity epidemic.
- Other health problems, such as breathing difficulties, sleep disorders and joint problems, can be caused by obesity.
About half of overweight children mature into overweight adults. In adulthood, being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk for many types of cancer, including cancer of the colon, esophagus, kidney, thyroid and breast.
Lifestyle Factors Encourage Obesity
Although there are certain medical conditions that can cause obesity in children, experts tie most cases to lifestyle factors. One of the dominant factors is poor nutrition and overeating. Many families make poor food choices because they think that healthy food is too expensive or unappealing.
School nutrition programs are notoriously unhealthy, with only 4 percent of states requiring schools to make fruit and vegetables available to students. About a third of elementary schools and nearly 90 percent of high schools have campus vending machines that sell food that is exempt from federal nutrition standards.
Another lifestyle factor that is associated with childhood obesity is a lack of physical activity. One in four children doesn’t participate in any type of physical activity during their free time. Instead, children are spending an average of 7.5 hours a day using electronic media like computers, TVs and video games.
Childhood obesity can also be caused by psychological factors. Some children use food to cope with stress, emotional problems or boredom. This may be a pattern shared with other family members, such as a parent who uses unhealthy food as a way to show love to a child.
The Media’s Role in Childhood Obesity
The average American child watches up to four hours of television per day and is exposed to more than 30,000 TV commercials each year. At least half of those commercials are for food that contributes to obesity, such as candy, snacks, sugary cereal and fast food. The New York Times reports that the food and beverage industries spend about $1.6 billion annually on advertising that is designed to lure kids into eating unhealthy foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt. In contrast, the federal government spends about $50 million per year on nutrition, physical activity and obesity prevention for Americans of all ages.
Overcoming and Preventing Childhood Obesity
Parents are the first role models for their children and should be the first line of defense in the fight against childhood obesity by providing healthy meals, discouraging high calorie snacks, limiting TV and computer time, and actively encouraging physical activity. Since parents of overweight children often have their own problems with weight, it’s important for the entire family to get on board with a healthy lifestyle. When the entire family is exercising more and eating healthier food, an overweight child won’t feel singled out or picked on.
Sarah Fudin currently works in community relations for University of Southern California’s online master’s programs. USC Rossier Online and the Virtual Academic Center provide the opportunity to earn a Special Education certification and MSW degree. Outside of work Sarah enjoys running, reading and Pinkberry frozen yogurt.