By Zack Steele
This is a subject I wanted to touch on after reading this week that Alabama is second in the nation in obesity. Many factors contribute to this growing problem. Our southern cuisine in Alabama is great, but unfortunately lends to problems due to the fat content. I would argue that another major problem is processed food, fast food, and of course, reduced physical activity in our children.
Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Childhood obesity can also lead to poor self-esteem and depression.
One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the diet and exercise habits of your entire family. Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect the health of your child now and in the future.
Not all children carrying extra pounds are overweight or obese. Some children have larger than average body frames. Children normally carry different amounts of body fat at the various stages of development. You might not know just by looking at your child if his or her weight is a health concern.
Your child’s doctor can help you figure out if your child’s weight could pose health problems. To do this, your child’s doctor will calculate your child’s body mass index. The BMI indicates if your child is overweight for his or her age and height.
Using a growth chart, your doctor determines your child’s percentile, meaning how your child compares with other children of the same sex and age. So, for example, you might be told that your child is in the 80th percentile. This means that compared with other children of the same sex and age, 80 percent have a lower BMI.
If you’re worried that your child is putting on too much weight, talk to his or her doctor or health care provider. He or she will consider your child’s individual history of growth and development, your family’s weight-for-height history and where your child lands on the growth charts. This can help determine if your child’s weight is in an unhealthy range.
Although there are some genetic and hormonal causes of childhood obesity, most of the time it’s caused by kids eating too much and exercising too little.
Far less common than lifestyle issues are genetic diseases and hormonal disorders that can make a child more likely to be obese. These diseases, such as Prader-Willi syndrome and Cushing’s syndrome, affect a small number of children. Most of the time, eating and exercise habits play a larger role.
Many factors — usually working in combination — increase your child’s risk of becoming overweight:
- Diet. Regularly eating high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, baked goods and vending machine snacks, can easily cause your child to gain weight. Loading up on soft drinks, candy and desserts also can cause weight gain. Foods and beverages like these are high in sugar, fat and calories.
- Lack of exercise. Children who don’t exercise much are more likely to gain weight because they don’t burn calories through physical activity. Inactive leisure activities, such as watching TV or playing video games, contribute to the problem.
- Family history. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be more likely to put on excess weight, especially in an environment in which high-calorie food is always available, and physical activity isn’t encouraged.
- Psychological factors. Some children overeat to cope with problems or to deal with emotions, such as stress, or to fight boredom. Their parents may have similar tendencies.
- Family factors. If many of the groceries you buy are convenience foods, such as cookies, chips and other high-calorie items, this can contribute to your child’s weight gain. If you can control your child’s access to high-calorie foods, you may be able to help your child lose weight.
- Socioeconomic factors. Children from low-income backgrounds are at greater risk of becoming obese. It takes time and resources to make healthy eating and exercise a family priority.
Childhood obesity can have complications for the physical, social and emotional well-being of your child. I am struck by the numbers of children that are sent over for eye exams by pediatricians due to Type II diabetes and high blood pressure, which was unheard of 30 years ago. It’s pretty easy to say that we have an epidemic on our hands.
Dr. Zack Steele is a 2003 graduate of the UAB School of Optometry. His practice, Trussville Vision Care, is located on Chalkville Mountain Road in downtown Trussville.