Ending Childhood Obesity: Is It Possible?

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Childhood obesity has been on the rise in the United States for several years now, although recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that obesity rates among children may finally be plateauing. However, the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents is still high. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), approximately one in three children and teenagers is obese or overweight.

As the AHA notes, this rate is nearly triple what it was in 1963. So is it possible to put an end to childhood obesity anytime in the near future? The World Health Organization (WHO) believes so.

Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity

In November 2015, representatives from more than 35 member states in the WHO European Region met for the European Consultation of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. These members provided comment on a draft final report of the Commission, which remains open for comment from around the world.

How Is Obesity in Children Defined?

For children who are aged 2 – 19 years, obesity is defined using body mass index (BMI); a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex is classified as obese. A BMI at or above the 85th percentile but lower than the 95th percentile is considered to fall into the overweight category.

For children who are younger than 2 years of age, there is currently no nationally recommended and agreed-upon definition for obesity.

What Are the Health Risks of Childhood Obesity?

There are numerous and serious health risks associated with obesity in children, both for the short term and for the long term. Children who are obese are more likely to have high blood pressure (hypertension) and high blood cholesterol, both of which are risk factors for future cardiovascular disease (disease of the heart and blood vessels, including the blood vessels that supply the brain).

In one study, for instance, as many as 70% of obese children were found to have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Children who are obese are also at a much greater risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. In fact, the rise of Type 2 diabetes in children has engendered great concern among the medical community, as “diabetes of childhood” used to be seen as only the rarer, Type 1, diabetes. Now, with the rise of childhood obesity, there has been a veritable explosion in cases of Type 2 diabetes in children. Given that diabetes is also a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, this is another malady with grave long-term ramifications.

Additionally, children with obesity are more likely to have breathing problems, such as asthma and obstructive sleep apnea. These children are also more likely to have joint problems and fatty liver disease, which has been associated with cirrhosis and liver cancer over the long term.

Finally, as many experts have noted, obesity or overweight in childhood often leads to obesity in adulthood.

Key Initiatives

Thus far, the WHO Commission has identified several important initiatives that it feels will be important in achieving an end to childhood obesity. According to the WHO news release, these initiatives include:

  • Childhood obesity surveillance
  • Food marketing to children
  • School food
  • Price policies to promote healthier diets
  • Action to promote physical activity

The first initiative is already underway, with more than 25 countries now actively participating in the WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative.

Need for Global Effort

It is to be hoped that these sorts of initiatives can be adopted worldwide, as the obesity epidemic is now a matter of global health.

In the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.”

The National Center for Health Statistics has noted that 17% of children and adolescents in the United States are currently obese. The WHO notes that “worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980,” further noting that, in 2013, 42 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese.

Sources:

Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011 – 2012. JAMA. 2014;311(8):806-814.

Freedman DS, Mei Z, Srinivasan SR, Berenson GS, et al. Cardiovascular risk factors and excess adiposity among overweight children and adolescents: the Bogalusa Heart Study. J Pediatr 2007; 150:12-17.e2.

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