The Disturbing Truth About Childhood Obesity

By Mary Green
The Disturbing Truth About Childhood Obesity

The statistics are nothing short of alarming: In the past 30 years, childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than doubled in children 6 to 11 years of age, quadrupled in adolescents and even has risen more than seven percent amongst toddlers and preschoolers ages 2-5.

In fact, the number of overweight or obese youth now stands at a record-busting 23.9 million in our country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of this number, 17 percent, or 12.5 million children and adolescents 2-19 years of age, are obese; children are considered obese when their body mass index, a measure of weight in relation to height, exceeds that of 95 percent of their peers of the same age and sex.

Further, a new study by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found an upward trend in the most severe forms of obesity—those in which children have a BMI that is 120 to 140 percent higher than that of their peers.

This epidemic of childhood obesity is already causing a broad range of weight-related health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood: One of the largest studies of its kind, released in 2014, found that nearly one-third of children between the ages of 9 and 11 has either high cholesterol or borderline high cholesterol. Retaining the excess weight greatly increases a child’s likelihood of developing serious medical conditions in adulthood, among them high blood pressure, early heart disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems and sleep apnea, not to mention more immediate skin conditions such as heat rash, fungal infections and acne. As if the physical woes tied to obesity aren't enough, there are also psychological effects: A new study finds that obese teens are more likely to face rejection by their peers, plus obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression and are at risk for eating disorders.Perhaps the most disheartening is a worrisome report just released by the CDC indicating that overweight kids don’t think they’re overweight. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics found that 76 percent of overweight boys and girls believe they are “about the right weight,” while 42 percent of obese children consider their weight about right, suggesting that overweight and obesity are perceived as the “new normal.”

The CDC study found that minority children and those from poorer backgrounds—demographic groups with higher rates of adult obesity—were more likely to misperceive their weight. This finding is key, as a child's proper perception of his or her weight is important for inspiring behavioral changes like eating healthier and getting more exercise.

Beyond genetic factors and medical conditions, a number of lifestyle studies have drawn conclusions regarding the reasons behind the out-of-control overweight and obesity numbers. It’s generally accepted that a change in lifestyle choices is at the heart of the matter. Kids are eating more processed and fast foods—and, thus, empty calories—than ever before. Forms of entertainment have changed as well. Children these days spend their time playing video games, watching television, texting, chatting on the phone and sitting in front of their computers. Plus, school physical education and after-school sports budgets have been slashed in many districts across the country.

Not all of the news is dismal, however. Although overall child obesity rates remain unchanged, the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data published in early 2014 showed a notable decline in obesity among children aged two to five years, plummeting 43 percent during the period from 2003-2004 to 2011-2012.

It appears that a combination of state, local and federal policies designed to reduce obesity is beginning to make a difference. School-meal standards championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and implemented through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act were initially met with resistance from pupils when nutritious school-meal menus were introduced in the fall of 2012, even leading to student-led boycotts in some districts. However, it seems they’ve warmed up to a healthier way of eating: 70 percent of school administrators surveyed by University of Illinois at Chicago researchers report that students now generally like the new lunches, which feature more whole grains, vegetable and fruits and lower fat levels.

Still, there’s plenty of room for healthy change... tons of it.

For information about children’s health and proper nutrition, visit the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology’s patient education website at: