Childhood obesity is steady on the rise

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Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges faced in the 21st century as its prevalence is steady on the rise. It has been estimated by the World Health Organization that approximately 42million children worldwide, under the age of five, are overweight or obese.

Overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and more likely to develop some diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. Being overweight and obese, alongside the related diseases can be prevented if the necessary measures are started right from childhood. Therefore, this health challenge faced today is one of high priority and needs immediate attention.

A child is said to be overweight or obese when the child is way above the normal weight for his/her age and height. According to WHO a child under 5 years of age is said to be overweight or obese when:

The child’s weight-for-height is greater than 2 standard deviations above WHO Child Growth Standards median; and when his/her weight-for-height is greater than 3 standard deviations above the WHO Child Growth Standards median, respectively.

While for children between ages 5-19, when:
The BMI-for-age is greater than 1 standard deviation above the WHO Growth Reference median and greater than 2 standard deviations above the WHO Growth Reference median respectively.

There are several causes of childhood obesity but according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the major cause is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended by the children. In other words, it may be caused by a shift in diet towards increased consumption of energy-dense foods high in fat and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and healthy nutrients, and a trend towards decreased levels of physical activity. In Africa, the plumpness of a child is usually misinterpreted as a “sign of good living”. Most times these children are seen as the healthy; when in actual sense may not be that healthy. This may be as a result of their poor diet, inactiveness or other factors mentioned below:

Poor diet:
Unnecessary weight gain or obesity in children is majorly as a result of a poor diet. Unhealthy eating and regular consumption of high calorie containing food such as cookies, fast food, candies, chocolate bars, ice cream, soda and unhealthy snacks contribute to unnecessary weight gain or obesity in children.

Lack of physical activities:
When children indulge in poor diet and cannot expend as much energy as the calories consumed, they end up gaining weight, thus being overweight or obese in the long run. It has been noticed that children of this present age do not do as much physical activities as in times past. They are usually indoors playing video games or watching TV and do not get to partake in outdoor activities which could help them burn off calories.

Presence of a medical condition:
The presence of a medical condition such as genetic or hormonal disorders can predispose a child to obesity. Hormonal disorders like hypothyroidism where the thyroid gland found in the neck, below the voice box is under-active and doesn’t produce enough hormones to speed up metabolism. So, in such rare case, the child’s metabolism will be slow and this causes the child to put on unnecessary weight.

Genetic factors play a big role in children being overweight or obese. If a child is born into a family of obese people, there’s a more likely chance of that child becoming obese. Also, the style of the family diet also affects the child because he/she will tend to eat what is made available for consumption.

The sort of environment a child is exposed to, can be the reason that child is overweight or obese. If a child is exposed to an environment (like at home) where candies, fast food and unhealthy snacks are not far-fetched, then there will be a great tendency of that child gaining unnecessary weight. When these unhealthy consumables are replaced with healthy ones like high-fibre bars, fruit wedges, low-fat yoghurts and so on, it exposes the child to healthier options that will be beneficial to his/her wellbeing.

The dangers of childhood obesity can be physically, emotionally and psychologically traumatizing for children. There are many health problems they’ll easily be prone to. These health problems may include:
• Cardiovascular disease like early arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure and stroke
• Certain types of cancer like colon, breast and endometrial cancer
• Musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis
• Diabetes because of a hormonal disorder
• Disability in adulthood, and
•Premature death.

Make healthy diet and snacking changes:
Providing plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain products will go a long way. Introduce low-fat or non-fat milk or dairy products into their diet. Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils, and beans for protein. Serve reasonably sized portions and encourage them to drink plenty of water. Make their favourite dishes healthier. Try out some new ones that may just turn out to be favourites too.

For their snacks and treats, moderation is very important. However, limit high-fat, high-sugar or salty snacks/treats. You can try to keep within a hundred calories or less.

Encourage more of physical activities: Educate your children on the importance of physical activity and it’s great health benefits like: strengthening the bones, decreasing blood pressure, reducing stress and anxiety, increasing self-esteem, helping with weight management and body carriage.

Encourage more active play by reducing their sedentary time and ensuring that they participate in at least 60 minutes of moderately-intense physical activity most days of the week or everyday if possible. You as a parent can start your own daily routine of physical activity and encourage your child/children to join you. A few examples of moderately-intense physical activity are: brisk walking, playing tag, jumping rope, skipping, cycling, playing soccer, swimming and dancing.

Balancing out the calories is all that really matters. It is the ideal way to manage obesity or being overweight in childhood. The amount of caloric intake should be balanced with the amount of energy expended by children daily. Offer your children nutritious meals and snacks with the appropriate number of calories. Help them develop healthy eating habits by making their favourite meals healthier and by reducing the caloric content of their meals.
So this is a call to parents to change or improve the diet their children and adolescents eating habit, as well as their physical activities.

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