Burden of Childhood Obesity

Fighting against childhood obesity is not just about stopping the rise of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases and the huge associated healthcare costs of obesity (about $147 billion if you’re wondering).

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It’s about giving children a normal childhood.

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at an adolescent bariatric (weight loss surgery) clinic. There are very few clinics that will perform gastric bypass and other weight loss surgeries on adolescents, but they exist because childhood obesity is extreme. It can get to the point of being 400 pounds at age 15.

Listening to these adolescent’s stories were heartbreaking. One girl we saw lost her dad due to his health and had spent her entire life being overweight. Her legs and feet are so swollen that her clogs barely fit. Another girl is not in school and receives therapy twice a week because many obese children are depressed and are teased by their peers constantly.

Despite all these hardships, they want to be healthy. The girl with no support is so motivated and wants this surgery to have another chance at life. At 18, she does her own grocery shopping, cooking, and makes the time to eat right and stay active. She’s already lost about 30 lbs with lifestyle changes alone, on her own!

These children don’t get to have a normal childhood with sports, social lives, and more. Another kid in the program needs this surgery and to lose 100 pounds to be eligible for a hip transplant. A hip transplant at 17 years old. When you’re 400 pounds, you can’t move around much at all, and most people have chronic pain or joint issues as a result of obesity.

There are many causes of obesity. People don’t become obese simply because they overeat. Honestly, after hearing the food records of many obese patients, I can tell you that I probably eat more than a lot of them. Obese people are not just lazy gluttons. Unfortunately, that’s what society thinks, and many people think it’s also acceptable, purposefully or not, to judge or straight up laugh and tease people about their weight. Even doctors show weight bias against obese patients. One study showed that doctors associated obesity with noncompliance, hostility, dishonesty, poor hygiene, and thus, they spend less time with these patients. Teasing may also come directly from the parents. Great care, huh?

It’s almost inevitable for children to become obese if their family is. If the family eats at McDonald’s every night of the week because they don’t know how to cook, can’t afford healthy food, or it’s the only option in their town, the children don’t have a choice. If one parent is obese, there’s a 50% chance the child will become obese as an adult. When both parents are obese, that rises to an 80% chance that child will be obese as an adult.

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If you want an idea of the quality of life obese children suffer through, one study asked children to rate their quality of life in categories, such as playing sports, playing with other children, sleeping well, and more. Obese children rated their quality of life poorer than even children with cancer. These children develop poor body image, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and the list continues. Not issues anyone wants to live with, much less children.

So, what can we do?

Of course, this is a tough question. There is so much that can and needs to be done to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. For one, food should not be allowed to be marketed towards children. What parent can argue with their toddler in their store when they see a box of gummies with Dora the explorer on it? Second, schools should be free from soda, candies, and other sugar-filled items.

These are some ideas, but what small changes you can make?

Get kids you know involved in healthy eating and cooking. Cook with children, and model healthy eating. If you tell a child to eat vegetables, but you don’t eat veggies – the kids aren’t gonna touch them! Have healthy food available for kids, and get them in the kitchen. Make food fun. Make crunchy “kale chips” instead of potato chips, or cut up veggies into fun shapes.

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Everyone should be educated on the root causes of obesity. There are multiple causes – genetic, environmental, social, etc. – but a child does not become obese just because they overeat and are lazy. They’re not the ones out shopping and cooking for the foods, and maybe their neighborhood isn’t safe enough to be active outside. Weight bias towards overweight or obese people of all ages needs to stop.

This means not judging yourself, as well. If you want to lose weight, stop calling yourself “fat,” and make an action plan. Kids will hear you and start calling themselves fat and will want to diet as well. Be a good role model for all the children in your community by modeling healthy eating, activity, and learning to develop a healthy body image.

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How can you help fight childhood obesity in your community? Get involved! Children should not have to endure weight teasing, depression, eating disorders, poor self-esteem…

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