Schools play a large role in preventing childhood obesity by providing a safe and supporting environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. At home, parents can help prevent their children from becoming overweight by changing the way the family eats and exercises together. The best way children learn is by example, so parents need to lead by example by living a healthy lifestyle.
The effects of eating habits on childhood obesity are difficult to determine. A three-year randomized controlled study of 1,704 3rd grade children which provided two healthy meals a day in combination with an exercise program and dietary counsellings failed to show a significant reduction in percentage body fat when compared to a control group. This was partly due to the fact that even though the children believed they were eating less their actual calorie consumption did not decrease with the intervention. At the same time observed energy expenditure remained similar between the groups. This occurred even though dietary fat intake decreased from 34% to 27%. A second study of 5,106 children showed similar results. Even though the children ate an improved diet there was no effect found on BMI. Why these studies did not bring about the desired effect of curbing childhood obesity has been attributed to the interventions not being sufficient enough. Changes were made primarily in the school environment while it is felt that they must occur in the home, the community, and the school simultaneously to have a significant effect.
Calorie-rich drinks and foods are readily available to children. Consumption of sugar-laden soft drinks may contribute to childhood obesity. In a study of 548 children over a 19-month period the likelihood of obesity increased 1.6 times for every additional soft drink consumed per day.
Calorie-dense, prepared snacks are available in many locations frequented by children. As childhood obesity has become more prevalent, snack vending machines in school settings have been reduced by law in a small number of localities. Some research suggests that the increase in availability of junk foods in schools can account for about one-fifth of the increase in average BMI among adolescents over the last decade. Eating at fast food restaurants is very common among young people with 75% of 7th to 12th grade students consuming fast food in a given week. The fast food industry is also at fault for the rise in childhood obesity. This industry spends about $4.2 billion on advertisements aimed at young children. McDonald's alone has thirteen websites that are viewed by 365,000 children and 294,000 teenagers each month. In addition, fast food restaurants give out toys in children's meals, which helps to entice children to buy the fast food. Forty percent of children ask their parents to take them to fast food restaurants on a daily basis. To make matters worse, out of 3000 combinations created from popular items on children's menus at fast food restaurants, only 13 meet the recommended nutritional guidelines for young children. Some literature has found a relationship between fast food consumption and obesity. Including a study which found that fast food restaurants near schools increases the risk of obesity among the student population.
Whole milk consumption verses 2% milk consumption in children of one to two years of age had no effect on weight, height, or body fat percentage. Therefore, whole milk continues to be recommended for this age group. However the trend of substituting sweetened drinks for milk has been found to lead to excess weight gain.
Some jurisdictions attempt to use laws and regulations to steer kids and parents towards making healthier food choices. Two examples are calorie count laws and banning soft drinks from sale at vending machines in schools.
Physical inactivity of children has also shown to be a serious cause, and children who fail to engage in regular physical activity are at greater risk of obesity. Researchers studied the physical activity of 133 children over a three-week period using an accelerometer to measure each child's level of physical activity. They discovered the obese children were 35% less active on school days and 65% less active on weekends compared to non-obese children.
Physical inactivity as a child could result in physical inactivity as an adult. In a fitness survey of 6,000 adults, researchers discovered that 25% of those who were considered active at ages 14 to 19 were also active adults, compared to 2% of those who were inactive at ages 14 to 19, who were now said to be active adults. Staying physically inactive leaves unused energy in the body, most of which is stored as fat. Researchers studied 16 men over a 14-day period and fed them 50% more of their energy required every day through fats and carbohydrates. They discovered that carbohydrate overfeeding produced 75–85% excess energy being stored as body fat and fat overfeeding produced 90–95% storage of excess energy as body fat.
Many children fail to exercise because they are spending time doing immobile activities such as computer usage, playing video games or watching television. Technology has a large factor on the children's activeness. Researchers provided a technology questionnaire to 4,561 children, ages 14, 16, and 18. They discovered children were 21.5% more likely to be overweight when watching 4+ hours of TV per day, 4.5% more likely to be overweight when using a computer one or more hours per day, and unaffected by potential weight gain from playing video games. A randomized trial showed that reducing TV viewing and computer use can decrease age-adjusted BMI; reduced calorie intake was thought to be the greatest contributor to the BMI decrease.
Technological activities are not the only household influences of childhood obesity. Low-income households can affect a child's tendency to gain weight. Over a three-week period researchers studied the relationship of socioeconomic status (SES) to body composition in 194 children, ages 11–12. They measured weight, waist girth, stretch stature, skinfolds, physical activity, TV viewing, and SES; researchers discovered clear SES inclines to upper class children compared to the lower class children.
Childhood inactivity is linked to obesity in the United States with more children being overweight at younger ages. In a 2009 preschool study 89% of a preschoolers' day was found to be sedentary while the same study also found that even when outside, 56 percent of activities were still sedentary. One factor believed to contribute to the lack of activity found was little teacher motivation, but whentoys, such as balls were made available, the children were more likely to play.
Children's food choices are also influenced by family meals. Researchers provided a household eating questionnaire to 18,177 children, ranging in ages 11–21, and discovered that four out of five parents let their children make their own food decisions. They also discovered that compared to adolescents who ate three or fewer meals per week, those who ate four to five family meals per week were 19% less likely to report poor consumption of vegetables, 22% less likely to report poor consumption of fruits, and 19% less likely to report poor consumption of dairy foods. Adolescents who ate six to seven family meals per week, compared to those who ate three or fewer family meals per week, were 38% less likely to report poor consumption of vegetables, 31% less likely to report poor consumption of fruits, and 27% less likely to report poor consumption of dairy foods. The results of a survey in the UK published in 2010 imply that children raised by their grandparents are more likely to be obese as adults than those raised by their parents. An American study released in 2011 found the more mothers work the more children are more likely to be overweight or obese.
Various developmental factors may affect rates of obesity. Breast-feeding for example may protect against obesity in later life with the duration of breast-feeding inversely associated with the risk of being overweight later on. A child's body growth pattern may influence the tendency to gain weight. Researchers measured the standard deviation (SD [weight and length]) scores in a cohort study of 848 babies. They found that infants who had an SD score above 0.67 had catch up growth (they were less likely to be overweight) compared to infants who had less than a 0.67 SD score (they were more likely to gain weight).
A child's weight may be influenced when he/she is only an infant. Researchers also did a cohort study on 19,397 babies, from their birth until age seven and discovered that fat babies at four months were 1.38 times more likely to be overweight at seven years old compared to normal weight babies. Fat babies at the age of one were 1.17 times more likely to be overweight at age seven compared to normal weight babies.
Cushing's syndrome (a condition in which the body contains excess amounts of cortisol) may also influence childhood obesity. Researchers analyzed two isoforms (proteins that have the same purpose as other proteins, but are programmed by different genes) in the cells of 16 adults undergoing abdominal surgery. They discovered that one type of isoform created oxo-reductase activity (the alteration of cortisone to cortisol) and this activity increased 127.5 pmol mg sup when the other type of isoform was treated with cortisol and insulin. The activity of the cortisol and insulin can possibly activate Cushing's syndrome.
Hypothyroidism is a hormonal cause of obesity, but it does not significantly affect obese people who have it more than obese people who do not have it. In a comparison of 108 obese patients with hypothyroidism to 131 obese patients without hypothyroidism, researchers discovered that those with hypothyroidism had only 0.077 points more on the caloric intake scale than did those without hypothyroidism.
Stress can influence a child's eating habits. Researchers tested the stress inventory of 28 college females and discovered that those who were binge eating had a mean of 29.65 points on the perceived stress scale, compared to the control group who had a mean of 15.19 points. This evidence may demonstrate a link between eating and stress.
Feelings of depression can cause a child to overeat. Researchers provided an in-home interview to 9,374 adolescents, in grades seven through 12 and discovered that there was not a direct correlation with children eating in response to depression. Of all the obese adolescents, 8.2% had said to be depressed, compared to 8.9% of the non-obese adolescents who said they were depressed.Antidepressants, however, seem to have very little influence on childhood obesity. Researchers provided a depression questionnaire to 487 overweight/obese subjects and found that 7% of those with low depression symptoms were using antidepressants and had an average BMI score of 44.3, 27% of those with moderate depression symptoms were using antidepressants and had an average BMI score of 44.7, and 31% of those with major depression symptoms were using antidepressants and had an average BMI score of 44.2.
Several studies have also explored the connection between Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and obesity in children. A study in 2005 concluded that within a subgroup of children who were hospitalized for obesity, 57.7% had co-morbid ADHD. This relationship between obesity and ADHD may seem counter-intuitive, as ADHD is typically associated with higher level of energy expenditure, which is thought of as a protective factor against obesity. However, these studies determined that children exhibited more signs of predominantly inattentive-type ADHD rather than combined-type ADHD. It is possible, however, that the symptoms of hyperactivity typically present in individuals with combined-type ADHD are simply masked in obese children with ADHD due to their decreased mobility. The same correlation between obesity and ADHD is also present in adult populations. Existing underlying explanations for the relationship between ADHD and obesity in children include but are not limited to abnormalities in the hypo-dopaminergic pathway, ADHD creating abnormal eating behaviors which leads to obesity, or impulsivity associated with binge eating leading to ADHD in obese patients. A systematic review of the literature on the relationship between obesity and ADHD concluded that all reviewed studies reported ADHD patients were heavier than expected. However, the same systematic review also claimed that all the evidence supporting this connection was still limited and further research is still necessary to learn more about this connection. Given the prevalence rates of both obesity and ADHD in children, understanding the possible relationship between the two is important for public health, particularly when exploring treatment and management options.
Direct intervention for psychological treatment of childhood obesity has become more prevalent in recent years. A meta-analysis of the psychological treatment of obesity in children and adolescents found family-based behavioral treatment (FBT) and Parent-Only Behavior treatment to be the most effective practices in treating obesity in children within a psychological framework.
Exclusive breast-feeding is recommended in all newborn infants for its nutritional and other beneficial effects. Parents changing the diet and lifestyle of their offspring by offering appropriate food portions, increasing physical activity, and keeping sedentary behaviors at a minimum may also decrease the obesity levels in children.
If children were more mobile and less sedentary, the rate of obesity would decrease. Parents should recognize the signs and encourage their children to be more physically active.
There are no medications currently approved for the treatment of obesity in children. Orlistat and sibutramine may however be helpful in managing moderate obesity in adolescence. Sibutramine is approved for adolescents older than 16. It works by altering the brain's chemistry and decreasing appetite. Orlistat is approved for adolescents older than 12. It works by preventing the absorption of fat in the intestines. Metformin is minimally useful.
You can help your child develop healthy habits early in life that will bring lifelong benefits. As a parent, you can encourage your kids to evaluate their food choice and physical activity habits. Here are some tips and guidelines to get you started.
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