Memoirs of a Psychologist: Tips for Dealing with Childhood Obesity
The following is a piece on pre-teen parenting tips, co-authored with psychologist Robert Erdei. We partnered with Dr. Erdei to create a series of blog posts geared specifically toward the difficult parenting challenges we were experiencing ourselves. We call this series, "Memoirs of a Psychologist". We hope you enjoy this piece and please don't hesitate to leave a comment below with your thoughts.
Childhood obesity is a common and quite serious health problem. It has severe consequences on the health and social relations of children. According to recent data, childhood obesity tripled since the 1980’s, and if the current trend remains, by 2050, two thirds of children will be overweight or obese. Rudolf (2009) claims that 13% of children are overweight when they starting school and 10% are already obese. The percentage of overweight children rises to 14% and the percentage of obese children to 17% by the time they finish school. In the United States, 18% of children and adolescents are obese.
Obesity is Often a Family Matter
The problem of being overweight is not only the problem of children. According to British data, more than 60% of the adult population is overweight and more than 25% of adults are obese. It is reasonable to assume that the figures are no better in the United States either. As the results of Ogden et al (2012) suggest, more than one third of adult American population is actually obese.
Obesity in children and adults has very high direct costs, but we must also consider the opposite of obesity as a risk factor for optimal development and growth. Low nutritional conditions before birth also have a negative effect on health, and they can cause various forms of diseases in adult life. It is hard to find a balance between food consumption and health preservation.
What Causes Childhood Obesity?
According to public opinion, obesity is simply the result of too much energy intake, along with limited physical activity. This approach fails to capture the complex nature of the problem. Individual decisions of parents and children, factors associated with human biology, the food children have access to, and the mainstream culture all have their responsibility in obesity of children. The human lifestyle of our age, like lower levels of physical activities, as well as more screen time and car usage, also influence the weight of our children. However, genetic causes of obesity are very rare; the most important causes behind obesity in children are related to their lifestyle. Although childhood obesity is a complex phenomenon, children or families have the opportunity to decide to eat healthily, which raises questions about personal responsibility.
Sadly, the environment offers little help for responsible decisions, with the universal availability of high-energy foods or the supersized products of supermarkets. Apart from food consumption and energy intake, we must consider physical activity levels as well. Health professionals recommend exercise for at least 60 minutes for every child aged five or older and children younger than five should have 180 minutes of physical activity spread throughout their daily routine.
Identifying Risk Factors for Obesity
The propensity for a child to be overweight is often hard to notice. Parents show a certain inability to spot obesity in their children. They believe that the child is in the normal weight range, but he or she is not. (Phillips, 2012) Because of the inability to identify (or acknowledge) an overweight or obese child, parents continue to feed excess calories to their children. Since they are the most important source of food and drinks in childhood, they should provide appropriate food for their children and reduce their intake of unhealthy foods. This could help to prevent unnecessary excess weight.
Parents can affect the development of healthy eating habits in childhood, which can lead to better food choices in later life. Parents can also encourage physical activities and prevent a sedentary lifestyle by their children. They can serve as effective role models, and the quality of their own lifestyle has a significant effect on their children. Research results show a positive correlation between the diet of parents and children. In itself, it is not surprising, but parents should not expect their children to eat healthily, unless they do so. The children of parents, who have a tendency eating uncontrollably, are in most cases obese. Parents can also be role models for physical activity. More active parents have more active children. As results show, mothers have a greater influence on dietary habits of children, and fathers have a greater impact on physical activities.
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Childhood Obesity Puts Them At Risk
Overweight and obesity have various health consequences. Some of them are already apparent in childhood, despite the happiness and confidence of many overweight children. The short-term consequences are not only an aesthetic question.
They may include prejudice, lower levels of self-esteem, poor body image, increased proneness to eating disorders, and depression. Increased risk of cardiovascular disease is associated with obesity in childhood, such as raised blood lipids, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, which has an early onset in adolescence because of excess weight. Increased risk of asthma, fatty liver and joint problems are also common among obese children.
As for long-term consequences, the risk of obesity is high in adulthood if a child or adolescent is obese. Obesity can lead to worse health, lower levels of socioeconomic status, and it can cause premature death. Recent research results suggest that obesity has treatments in childhood, and treatment is able to remove long-term risks associated with excess weight.
An Ounce of Prevention...
Prevention of obesity should aim to emphasize physical activity and proper dietary habits. Initiatives need to stress important behaviour changes, which the child is able to maintain, and involve support from the family and peer groups. Prevention and intervention must consider the age and developmental specifications of the child. Culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender have to be considered as well, and prevention or treatment should aim to involve the targeted population to decide the best possible methods. The most important aspects of effective treatment include weight maintenance (allowing children to ‘grow into the weight’), increase of physical activity parallel with reduction of sedentary behaviours, like screen time, and changes in the diets of children, particularly reducing high-energy food and drinks. Physical activity and a healthy diet are not only necessary to fight body fat, but also have important benefits on mental and physical health.
It is important to regulate the food industry as well, because children are exposed to a variety of unhealthy foods and drinks. Children lack the necessary knowledge to distinguish, and advertising such food negatively influences them and their eating habits. Children do not particularly like fat people or peers. They tend to have a negative attitude towards overweight people. They associate it with a weakness of will and lack of self-control. Overweight and obese children are more likely to become victims of bullying because of their size.
The effective prevention and intervention of childhood obesity are complex questions, and require involving policy makers, participation of parents and children, engagement of schools and regulations of the food industry.
References & Resources
- Bradshaw, J., Keung, A. (2010): Trends in Child Subjective Well-Being in the United Kingdom, Paper for the Social Policy Association Conference “Social Policy in Times of Change”, University of Lincoln, 5-7 July 2010
- Brown, T., Summerbell, C. (2009): Systematic Review of School-Based Interventions that Focus on Changing Dietary Intake and Physical Activity Levels to Prevent Childhood Obesity: An Update to the Obesity Guidance Produced by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, Obesity Reviews, 10, 110-141
- Childhood Obesity, (2012), Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Position Statement, April 2012
- Hollingworth, W., Hawkins, J., Lawlor, D. A., Brown, M., Marsh, T., Kipping, R. R. (2012): Economic Evaluation of Lifestyle Interventions to Treat Overweight ort Obesity in Children, International Journal of Obesity, 36, 559-566
- Murdoch, M., Payne, N., Samadi-Radia, D, Rosen-Webb, J., Walker, L., Howe, M., Lewis, P. (2011): Family-Based Behavioural Management of Childhood Obesity: Service Evaluation of a Group Programme Run in a Community Setting in the United Kingdom, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65, 764-767
- Nitta, H. (2009): World Research Trends in Child Health and the Environment, Science & Technology Trends, Quarterly Review, No. 32
- Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., Flegal, K. M. (2012): Prevalence of Obesity in the United States 2009-2010, NCHS Data Brief, No. 82
- Pearce, A., Jenkins, R., Kirk, C., Law, C. (2008): An Evaluation of UK Secondary Data Sources for the Study of Childhood Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, Child: care, health and development, 34, 6, 701-709
- Phillips, F. (2012): Facing up to Childhood Obesity, Practice Nurse, Vol. 42, Issue 11, pp. 14-17
- Rees, R., Oliver, K., Woodman, J., Thomas, J. (2011): The Views of Young Children in the UK about Obesity, Body Size, Shape and Weight: A Systematic Review, BMC Public Health, 11: 188
- Rudolf, M. (2009): Tackling Obesity through the Healthy Child Programme, A Framework for Action, University of Leeds, NHS, Leeds Community Healthcare
- Sharma, M. (2006): School-Based Interventions for Childhood and Adolescent Obesity, Obesity Reviews, 7, 261-269
- Tew, G. (2011): Tackling Childhood Obesity – Whose Responsibility is it? The Sport and Exercise Scientist, Issue 27, Spring 2011
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