The World Health Organization (WHO) defines obesity as excessive fat accumulation, leading to various health complications.
In the recent past, the rates of obesity have not only increased in the adult population but also have seen a rapid rise among children globally. The prevalence of obesity was estimated to be about 39 million in children < 5 years of age globally in 2020. Another 2016 WHO report suggests the rate of obesity to be > 340 million in those aged 5-19 years. In India, the prevalence of childhood obesity (5 to 19 years of age) is increasing at an alarming rate. By 2025, it is expected to reach 17 million, and about 13 million USD may be spent annually for treating obesity-related illnesses.
The ongoing pandemic has further increased the risk of obesity among children. A major shift in food and lifestyle habits has led to high rates of obesity among children during recent times.
Lifestyle Impact of COVID on Children
Children are the worst affected both physically and mentally, due to social isolation. As schools are shut, the screen-time has thus soared to an all-time high. This coupled with high intake of processed food, reduced intake of fruits and vegetables, and lack of physical exercising are the main cause of child obesity.
The impact of obesity and unhealthy lifestyle on health is well-known and can have life-long consequences among all age groups, particularly children.
- Mounting research has proven that if a child is obese, he/she is at an increased risk of infectious diseases due to weak immune functioning
- Obesity also increases the risk of lifestyle diseases such as including hypertension, heart diseases, diabetes, liver diseases, cancers, etc in children
- Obesity also increases the risk of anxiety, depression, lack of self-esteem, etc among the children
Preventing Childhood Obesity in India: The way forward
The good news is that obesity is largely preventable with only lifestyle changes in children.
- Knowledge is power: Children should be explained about obesity and its consequences. Blaming the child for their unhealthy food and lifestyle habits may prove counterproductive. Children should be taught to maintain a healthy body weight constructively and respectfully.
- Practice what you preach: Our children learn a lot from us. Make healthy eating and exercising a routine family activity, so that children may enjoy the process of maintaining a healthy weight and not feel singled out.
- Choose food wisely: Include fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, dry fruits, etc in your child’s regular diet to improve their immunity. Limit the intake of processed food such as cold drinks, chocolates, bakery items, etc. Eating fresh home-cooked food over outside food should be considered to attain a healthier weight and prevent childhood obesity.
- Promote regular physical activity: Make sure your children exercise for at least 1 hour a day, such as jogging, skipping, yoga, cycling, etc in a safe environment.
- Follow a healthy routine: Make sure to limit your child’s screen time. Adequate sleep is also important for a healthy body and mind. Engage them in age-appropriate simple household tasks and gardening-related activities and spend time with them to stay connected with nature and family.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How is childhood obesity measured?
In general, obesity is measured using Body Mass Index (BMI), calculated as kg/m2. A high BMI than normal indicates obesity. If your child looks overweight, visiting a pediatrician can help you confirm the diagnosis of obesity.
2. What is the main cause of obesity in children?
The main causes of obesity in children include:
- Lack of physical activity
- High intake of junk food and poor intake of vitamins and minerals in regular diet
- Genetics may also play a role
3. Are parents to be blamed for their child’s unhealthy weight gain?
A parent is a child’s first teacher and overall responsible for shaping their physical and mental health throughout childhood. It is important to make a child understand the importance of making healthy choices as early as possible. It is important for parents to understand that obesity does not happen overnight but because of unhealthy practices over a period of time. Encourage home-cooked healthy food, and limit the intake of high-calorie energy-dense foods like candies, pizza, baked goods, etc., regularly. It is also important to limit screen time and follow a healthy timetable for your kids.
- By Dr. Supraja Chandrasekar, Consultant, Paediatrics, Paediatric Intensive Care, Columbia Asia Referral Hospital – Yeshwanthpur (A unit of Manipal Hospitals).