Childhood Obesity: Causes and Consequences

Date:  2021-04-06 16:25:55
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Carnegie Mellon University
Type of paper: 
Research paper
This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


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Childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels in developed as well as in developing countries. Overweight and obesity in childhood are known to have significant impact on both physical and psychological health. Overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and more likely to develop non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. The mechanism of obesity development is not fully understood and it is believed to be a disorder with multiple causes. Environmental factors, lifestyle preferences, and cultural environment play pivotal roles in the rising prevalence of obesity worldwide. In general, overweight and obesity are assumed to be the results of an increase in caloric and fat intake. On the other hand, there are supporting evidence that excessive sugar intake by soft drink, increased portion size, and steady decline in physical activity have been playing major roles in the rising rates of obesity all around the world. Childhood obesity can profoundly affect children's physical health, social, and emotional well-being, and self esteem. It is also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child. Many co-morbid conditions like metabolic, cardiovascular, orthopedic, neurological, hepatic, pulmonary, and renal disorders are also seen in association with childhood obesity.

Keywords: Childhood obesity, consequences, epidemiology, lifestyle, non-communicable disease, overweight


The world is undergoing a rapid epidemiological and nutritional transition characterized by persistent nutritional deficiencies, as evidenced by the prevalence of stunting, anemia, and iron and zinc deficiencies. Concomitantly, there is a progressive rise in the prevalence of obesity, diabetes and other nutrition related chronic diseases (NRCDs) like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer. Obesity has reached epidemic levels in developed countries. The highest prevalence rates of childhood obesity have been observed in developed countries; however, its prevalence is increasing in developing countries as well.[1] Females are more likely to be obese as compared to males, owing to inherent hormonal differences.[2]

It is emerging convincingly that the genesis of Type 2 Diabetes and Coronary Heart Disease begins in childhood, with childhood obesity serving as an important factor.[ HYPERLINK "" \l "ref3" 3] There has been a phenomenal rise in proportions of children having obesity in the last 4 decades, especially in the developed world. Studies emerging from different parts of India within last decade are also indicative of similar trend.[4,5,6,7,8,9] This view has been challenged over recent years and we presently consider these as different forms of the global malnutrition problem. This new conceptualization leads us to simultaneously address the root causes of nutritional deficiencies which in turn will contribute to the control of under nutrition and the prevention of obesity, diabetes, and other NRCDs. This summary provides a public health overview of selected key issues related to the prevention of obesity and chronic diseases with a life-course perspective of nutrition and child growth.

Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. The problem is global and is steadily affecting many low and middle income countries, particularly in urban settings. The prevalence has increased at an alarming rate. Globally in 2010, the number of overweight children under the age of five is estimated to be over 42 million. Close to 35 million of these are living in developing countries.

Definition of Childhood Obesity

Although definition of obesity and overweight has changed over time, it can be defined as an excess of body fat (BF). There is no consensus on a cut-off point for excess fatness of overweight or obesity in children and adolescents. A study by conducted by Williams et al. (1992), on 3,320 children in the age-group of 518 years classified children as fat if their percentage of body fat was at least 25% for males and 30% for females, respectively.[10] The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defined overweight as at or above the 95th percentile of body mass index (BMI) for age and at risk for overweight as between 85th to 95th percentile of BMI for age.[11,12] European researchers classified overweight as at or above 85th percentile and obesity as at or above 95th percentile of BMI.[13]

An Indian research study has defined overweight and obesity as overweight (between 85th and <95th percentile) and obesity (95th percentile).[14] Another study has followed World Health Organization 2007 growth reference for defining overweight and obesity.[15]

There are also several methods to measure the percentage of body fat. In research, techniques include underwater weighing (densitometry), multi-frequency bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In the clinical environment, techniques such as BMI, waist circumference, and skin-fold thickness have been used extensively. Although, these methods are less accurate than research methods, they are satisfactory to identify risk. While BMI seems appropriate for differentiating adults, it may not be as useful in children because of their changing body shape as they progress through normal growth. In addition, BMI fails to distinguish between fat and fat-free mass (muscle and bone) and may exaggerate obesity in large muscular children. Furthermore, maturation pattern differs between genders and different ethnic groups. Studies that used BMI to identify overweight and obese children based on percentage of body fat have found high specificity (95100%), but low sensitivity (3666%) for this system of classification.[ HYPERLINK "" \l "ref16" 16] While health consequences of obesity are related to excess fatness, the ideal method of classification should be based on direct measurement of fatness. Although methods such as densitometry can be used in research practice, they are not feasible for clinical settings. For large population-based studies and clinical situations, bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) is widely used. Waist circumference seems to be more accurate for children because it targets central obesity, which is a risk factor for type II diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

It is widely accepted that increase in obesity results from an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure, with an increase in positive energy balance being closely associated with the lifestyle adopted and the dietary intake preferences. However, there is increasing evidence indicating that an individual's genetic background is important in determining obesity risk. Research has made important contributions to our understanding of the factors associated with obesity. The ecological model, as described by Davison et al., suggests that child risk factors for obesity include dietary intake, physical activity, and sedentary behavior.[ HYPERLINK "" \l "ref17" 17] The impact of such risk factors is moderated by factors such as age, gender. Family characteristics parenting style, parents lifestyles also play a role. Environmental factors such as school policies, demographics, and parents' work-related demands further influence eating and activity behaviors.

Genetics are one of the biggest factors examined as a cause of obesity. Some studies have found that BMI is 2540% heritable.[18] However, genetic susceptibility often needs to be coupled with contributing environmental and behavioral factors in order to affect weight.[19] The genetic factor accounts for less than 5% of cases of childhood obesity.[18] Therefore, while genetics can play a role in the development of obesity, it is not the cause of the dramatic increase in childhood obesity.

Basal metabolic rate has also been studied as a possible cause of obesity. Basal metabolic rate, or metabolism, is the body's expenditure of energy for normal resting functions. Basal metabolic rate is accountable for 60% of total energy expenditure in sedentary adults. It has been hypothesized that obese individuals have lower basal metabolic rates. However, differences in basal metabolic rates are not likely to be responsible for the rising rates of obesity.[ HYPERLINK "" \l "ref18" 18]

Review of the literature investigates factors behind poor diet and offers numerous insights into how parental factors may impact on obesity in children.[ HYPERLINK "" \l "ref20" 20] They note that children learn by modeling parents and peers preferences, intake and willingness to try new foods. Availability of, and repeated exposure to, healthy foods is key to developing preferences and can overcome dislike of foods. Mealtime structure is important with evidence suggesting that families who eat together consume more healthy foods. Furthermore, eating out or watching TV while eating is associated with a higher intake of fat. Parental feeding style is also significant. The author's found that authoritative feeding (determining which foods are offered, allowing the child to choose, and providing rationale for healthy options) is associated with positive cognitions about healthy foods and healthier intake. Interestingly authoritarian restriction of junk-food is associated with increased desire for unhealthy food and higher weight.[ HYPERLINK "" \l "ref21" 21]

Government and social policies could also potentially promote healthy behavior. Research indicates taste, followed by hunger and price, is the most important factor in adolescents snack choices.[22] Other studies demonstrate that adolescents associate junk food with pleasure, independence, and convenience, whereas liking healthy food is considered odd.[23] This suggests investment is required in changing meanings of food, and social perceptions of eating behavior. As proposed by the National Taskforce on Obesity (2005), fiscal policies such as taxing unhealthy options, providing incentives for the distribution of inexpensi...

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