Childhood obesity has both mental and physical health ramifications. Aside from the mental distress of living in a body that society suggests is unacceptable, children that suffer from obesity are more likely to suffer from comorbid diseases as well. These diseases include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and certain types of cancer, some of which are the leading causes of preventable death. With numbers as high as 13.7 million children and teens suffering from childhood obesity, (as reported by the CDC), we are clearly doing something wrong.
Although obesity rates among young children seemed to be dropping recently, this was disproved by a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. Severe obesity among children ages two to five has risen since 2013, with 41.5 percent of 16 to 19 year olds living with obesity.
Some of the causes of childhood obesity include a sedentary lifestyle with more time spent in front of screens and less time exercising outdoors, as well as a diet high in sugar, processed foods, and high-fructose corn syrup hiding in your favorite beverages. Dr. Joseph Galati, a liver doctor and the author of “Eating Yourself Sick: How to Stop Obesity, Fatty Liver, and Diabetes from Killing You and Your Family” ascribes part of the blame for the current obesity crisis to the ‘grab-and-go’ meal culture.
So what should we do?
Dr. Galati strongly advises parents to serve home-cooked meals and to be mindful of the type of snacks they provide. Although snacks are abundant, relatively cheap, and very convenient, offering fresh fruit or veggie sticks is worlds apart quality wise from offering store-bought cookies and potato chips.
Dr. Galati believes in brutal honesty. He says that it takes a brave physician to tell families, “You’re all in trouble, you’re all going to die early.”
Dr. Edward Pont, an Illinois pediatrician with close to 30 years of experience treating kids, disagrees with Dr. Galati’s strategy. He counsels that instead of motivating people to make long-term lifestyle changes, guilt and blame only serve to make people feel bad. Instead, it’s better for families to make small lasting changes and to stay positive.
Many agree with Dr. Pont; well-intentioned parents can do immeasurable harm and unwittingly set their children up for a lifetime of disordered eating and toxic attitudes towards food and eating. Putting your child on a calorie-restricted diet and demonizing sweet treats can often backfire and can actually cause your child to gain even more weight. Jill Castle, a dietician who specializes in childhood nutrition, explains that a parent can trigger kids into eating more by pressuring them to take more bites of [healthy] food, or restricting sweets to the point of exclusion. Castle also recommends that parents do not bribe their kids with food.
Katharine Jeffcoat, a health at every size (HAES) dietitian, concurs. She believes that genetics and some other factors that determine weight are out of the person’s control. She describes a parent who micromanages their child’s weight and uses it as the main factor to determine their health as being both incorrect and very harmful at the same time. She explains that a child’s health is more connected to their lifestyle and less to their weight. By examining the child’s health markers such as cholesterol, triglycerides, and A1C, she can get a better understanding of the child’s overall health, regardless of their weight. If these areas are elevated, the child is at risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Although the studies show that we aren’t doing particularly well in our fight against childhood obesity, more people are aware of it and this knowledge will hopefully lead to change. Ultimately though, change will only be affected on a micro level, by parents educating themselves about healthy eating and establishing healthy habits regarding food.
Written by Gila Isaacson