Overweight is increasing and fitness is decreasing among children in our state. The prevalence of overweight in children is higher in California than the national average and is creeping up annually. At the same time, sedentary activity, as measured by hours of television viewing, is also increasing. In national surveys, over one-quarter of the children reported averaging four or more hours of television watching per day. Native American, Mexican American and African American children are especially vulnerable to the onset of overweight during childhood.
Pressuring youngsters to be thin has not helped reduce the prevalence of overweight. Instead it has resulted in a host of new health problems such as rampant body dissatisfaction, poor body image, low self-esteem and eating disorders. Many youngsters are very unhappy with their bodies. They want the thin body that our society touts as the perfect body.
Defining Childhood Overweight
Childhood overweight is defined as excess body weight per unit of height. The cut-off points are somewhat arbitrary. Children whose weight falls at or above the 85th percentile are considered overweight. However, some children who are growing normally may fall above these percentiles. This is why it is important for each child’s growth to be tracked and monitored by a health care professional.
Health Risks of Overweight in Childhood
The most serious problems associated with overweight in children are low self esteem and poor body image. Other children tease and torment large children. Well-intentioned adults pressure them to lose weight. This does not help them. Adults need to model and promote respect for the bodies of others, even when those bodies are smaller or larger than the norm.
The primary health risk of overweight in children is the probability that it will last into adulthood and result in increased risk of a variety of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease. Very large children need to be screened for a number of medical problems including asthma, sleep apnea, joint problems, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and hyperlipidemia. These children must be treated for these conditions as well as for their weight.
Why Do Children Become Overweight?
To say that childhood overweight is due to poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle is too simplistic. We must recognize that in the past, human beings with a genetic propensity for storing body fat, had an evolutionary advantage–they were able to survive times of famine and food shortages. Even if they had a predisposition towards overweight, few children and adults actually became fat because food was of a lower caloric density and much energy was expended on survival activities. Everyone had to work hard in order to have the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing.
In the last century, we have created a very different environment. It is an environment of convenience, labor saving devices, and readily available food of high caloric density–an environment conducive to the genetic expression of obesity. It is quite likely that children and adults will continue to become fatter unless we make a concerted effort to create an environment that promotes a healthy lifestyle.
University of California Extension