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Children naturally gain weight as they grow older but if the supply of calories is more than are required for normal growth and development, one of the largest public health issues arises. Childhood obesity is one of the more serious medical conditions emerging in the world. The key to prevention and control of this potentially deadly epidemic is awareness and education among the public. Knowledge of risk factors and causes is essential along with early screening and diagnosis to prevent its common complications. Medications and surgery are to be the last resort. Periodic assessment of indicators of successful interventions has to be done if we wish to make this world a safer place for our future – our children.
Children naturally gain weight as they grow older but if the intake of calories is more than are required for normal growth and development, it is time to get concerned. These extra calories lead to one of the deadliest epidemics of the 21st century – childhood obesity. This is a very serious medical condition affecting children and adolescents. It is characterized by a weight well above that expected for the height of the child, and a high Body-Mass Index. One of the most troubling facts of this disease is the scenario of “buy one, get one free”. Along with the obesity come problems of diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, sleep disorders, early puberty and infertility. Other significant problems which can develop are low self-esteem and depression.
Statistics put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2004 show that 16 % of children 6-19 years were overweight or obese – a number that has tripled since 1980 (cited in “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, 1999-2002”, 2004). In addition, another 15% were at risk of developing obesity in the near future. According to the CDC, over the past three decades the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, whereas it has more than tripled for children aged 6-11 years.
Overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. This figure increases to 80 % if one or both parents are overweight or obese. Obesity associated annual hospital costs for the young has more than tripled over two decades rising from $ 35 million in 1980 to $ 127 million in the year 2000 (cited in “Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance”, Institute of Medicine, 2005). Therefore it becomes clear that not only does the obese inpidual pose a direct threat to himself, he also poses as an indirect threat to the society in terms of costs and socio-economics. It also becomes clear how childhood obesity has come to wear the mantle of an important public health issue.
In order to prevent childhood obesity, it is essential to have an idea of its causes and risk factors. Although some cases of childhood obesity may be attributed to genetic and hormonal causes (such as the Cushing’s syndrome), most of the obese children are eating too much and exercising too little. Normal children need extra nutrients and calories for their normal growth and development, and with these calories they add weight proportional to their growth. This is in contrast to those children who ingest more calories than are required. The latter ones become obese.
Many factors working in tandem increase a child’s risk of becoming overweight /obese. Some of these factors have already been mentioned, namely, a high calorie diet, a sedentary lifestyle and genetics. Other factors include psychological and socioeconomic factors. A child may try to cope with a problem by overeating. In addition, poverty and obesity go hand in hand. Finally, the environment in a child’s home has a major role to play. Access to high calorie foodstuff has to be controlled especially at home.
Increasing awareness of the causes and risk factors will go a long way in the prevention of childhood obesity. As part of regular doctor’s visits, the child’s weight and height are plotted on a graph which tells the doctor exactly how the child compares with other children of his age and sex. Cutoff points have been established by the CDC on these growth charts which help to identify obese children. In addition to height and weight, the doctor also identifies the child’s genetic history, his eating habits, his activity level etc.
Most of these initiatives are sponsored by the government’s Department of Health and Human Services along with volunteer agencies and campaign partners. Children and their parents are taught the importance of eating well and keeping physically active. They are encouraged to visit anti-obesity websites sponsored by the government. These reforms if implemented from an early age will go a long way in reversing the trend of childhood obesity. Many communities launch their own anti-obesity programs like the highly successful MEND program (cited in the BBC website, 22nd April, 2007). Here emphasis is laid on the sustenance of a healthy lifestyle instead of just food and exercise.
The success of any intervention program can be assessed by the evaluation of the main indicators of obesity, namely weight for height and sex, and the Body-Mass Index. Other important indicators can be the waist measurement and skin fold thickness.
Professor Alan Lucas, Director of the Medical Research Council Childhood Nutrition Research Center at the Institute of Child Health, said the following: Obesity is an immense public health issue in both immediate and long term health. It costs the nation $ 14 billion a year. Popular community based programs have the potential to underpin effective national strategies for obesity treatment and prevention.
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