Children's Diet and the Long-term Effects
The media gives almost daily reports on obesity in children and the associated long term health problems: heart disease, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, low self-esteem and depression. Every parent wants the best for their children and so this is worrying – they need information on the issue and help to tackle it.
What is Obesity?Three out of ten children in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese. But what is obesity and how is it measured?
Children are growing and developing and so it can be difficult to tell whether or not they are overweight. Any parent with concerns should take their child to be assessed by a healthcare professional who will measure their height, weight and body mass index (BMI) using a growth, or centile, chart. According to the Obesity Society, a BMI on the 85th centile indicates that a child is overweight. A child whose BMI is on the 95th centile is considered obese. However, the healthcare professional will not make an assessment on BMI alone. They will also take into account the child’s age, gender, stage of development, their pattern of growth since birth, levels of activity and any family history of weight problems.
There are many factors that contribute to weight gain in children. A poor diet full of fat, sugar and processed foods plays a major part. Watching television and playing computer games are on the increase and often lead to a drop in physical activity making it easier to gain weight. It is also known that children with overweight parents are more likely to be overweight themselves.
Cardiovascular DiseaseEvidence shows that overweight children are more likely to grow into overweight adults. The longer a person is overweight, the greater the health risks and this is particularly true in the case of cardiovascular diseases – diseases of the heart and the arteries. Cardiovascular disease can be caused by a build up of fatty deposits in the coronary arteries as a result of a high fat diet. This is called atherosclerosis and reduces the flow of oxygen-carrying blood to the heart muscle. Heart attacks occur when lumps of the fatty deposit (called atheromas) break free and block a coronary artery completely. Stroke occurs when atheromas block a cerebral artery, cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain.
Atherosclerosis is partly a result of a high fat diet. It is important to remember though, that not all fats are bad. The main culprits are saturated fats that increase the levels of cholesterol in the blood, such as butter, cheese and fatty cuts of meat.
High Blood PressureWhen a person is overweight they are much more likely to suffer from high blood pressure (hypertension). High blood pressure is a serious condition that can lead to cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. The increase in blood pressure in people who are overweight is often due to an increase of cholesterol in the blood. But excess weight also means that it takes more pressure to push the blood around the body. An adult who has been overweight since childhood is more likely to experience serious damage to the cardiovascular system as a result of high blood pressure.
Type II DiabetesThe pancreas of a person with type II diabetes does not produce enough insulin, or the insulin it produces does not work properly. Insulin is the hormone that carries glucose to the body’s cells. If an overweight person has a lot of fat around the belly, they are particularly at risk of type II diabetes. This fat, also known as ‘active fat’, bombards the body’s cells with chemicals that make them insulin resistant. When this happens, the pancreas works hard to produce even more insulin to get glucose into the cells. Eventually the pancreas becomes exhausted and can no longer make enough insulin, leading to high levels of glucose in the blood. High blood-glucose levels cause major damage to the organs of the body, including the heart and arteries.
Psychological EffectsAn overweight child is at greater risk of being teased and bullied at school. They are less likely to be able to participate in sports and physical activity in the playground and may feel lonely and left out. This can lead to low self-esteem and depression which in turn can make it difficult for the child to take action to improve their diet and increase their levels of exercise.
What Can Be Done?Losing even small amounts of weight can lead to a dramatic improvement in a child’s health. This must be done gradually, though. Parents will usually be advised to keep the child’s weight levels constant so that as they grow taller their weight centile gradually falls into line with their height centile, leading to a healthier BMI.
It is important to include the whole family when helping a child to control their weight. Everyone will be encouraged to eat a healthier diet, and also to eat together so that meals become a social event and not just about consuming calories.
Getting active will slow down weight gain and improve fitness. Fitting 60 minutes of activity into the daily routine needn’t be hard. Encouraging outdoor play or active games in the home after school can make a big difference. Walking, cycling or running to and from school can be easy to fit in to the day. Weekends could include walks and trips to the swimming pool or park. However, children with low self-esteem may need careful encouragement to become involved in school sports as they may fear the reactions of their schoolmates.