Childhood Obesity: Causes And Prevention

What Is Childhood Obesity?

Each child's growth and development are unique. As they grow, they naturally gain weight, with their ideal weight increasing in tandem with their height and age.

Childhood obesity is a serious health issue that affects children. It is alarming that excess weight in children can lead to health issues traditionally associated with adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. Additionally, childhood obesity can contribute to diminished self-esteem and depression.

The body mass index (BMI) is a measure that uses height and weight to estimate if your child’s weight is normal. Refer to the BMI chart to find out.

For children under 5 years old:

  • Being overweight is determined by weight-for-height greater than 2 standard deviations above the WHO Child Growth Standards median.
  • Obesity is identified when this is greater than 3 standard deviations. 

In the 5-19 age group:

  • Overweight is classified as having a BMI-for-age greater than 1 standard deviation above the WHO Growth Reference median.
  • Obesity is indicated when it is greater than 2 standard deviations beyond this reference point.

What Are the Causes of Childhood Obesity?

Numerous factors can contribute to a child's obesity, such as medical or genetic reasons. However, in most cases, children experience weight issues due to unhealthy dietary habits and a lack of physical activity.

If you suspect a medical cause of your child's weight condition, it is advisable to consult your paediatrician. 

Below is the list of causes of obesity in children. Remember, weight gain = calories consumed > calories burned.

  1. Unhealthy diet:

    Routinely eating fatty food, such as fast food and processed food and snacks, can contribute to weight gain. Sugary beverages such as packaged fruit juices and sports drinks, as well as desserts and candy, are increasingly being linked to obesity.
  2. Lack of physical activity:

    Sedentary lifestyles, characterised by limited physical activity and excessive screen time, contribute to weight problems in children.
  3. Family environment:

    Childhood obesity may be exacerbated by parental eating habits and physical inactivity.
  4. Psychological factors:

    Emotional and psychological factors, such as stress, trauma, or using food as a coping mechanism, can contribute to overeating and weight gain.
  5. Socioeconomic factors:

    In some communities, people with limited access to healthier options might resort to buying cheaper food options that do not spoil quickly. Additionally, it is also possible that they do not have access to secure and safe space to exercise.
  6. Certain medications:

    Some prescription drugs, such as steroids and antidepressants, are more prone to weight gain.
  7. Medical conditions:

    Certain medical conditions, such as hormonal disorders or genetic syndromes, may contribute to childhood obesity in some cases. Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) is the most common genetic cause of obesity occurring in 1:10,000–1:30,000 live births. A child with PWS develops an uncontrolled appetite, which could lead to overeating and weight gain.

What Are the Complications of Childhood Obesity?

Childhood obesity is a serious concern with various health implications, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, behavioural issues, and depression.

Children who are overweight are more likely to continue facing weight challenges into adulthood, with almost half of overweight adults having been overweight in their childhood.

Type 2 diabetes is more likely to occur in children who are obese and lead sedentary lifestyles. How your child's body processes sugar (glucose) is affected in this condition.

The risk of high blood pressure increases as weight increases. Prolonged high blood pressure puts a strain on the heart. 

High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and other cardiovascular issues are more prevalent in children with obesity, increasing the risk of heart disease, especially atherosclerosis.

The most prevalent cause of liver disease in children related to obesity is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Children who are overweight are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnoea in which there is recurrent airway obstruction that leads to breathing and sleep interruptions.

Excess weight can also lead to joint pain and increased stress on the bones and joints.

Additionally, obesity can contribute to social stigmatisation, bullying, and the development of low self-esteem issues in children. Frequently, low self-esteem begins in childhood. Children may tend to view themselves and their lives in a more critical and negative light when self-esteem is low. Additionally, they may feel less prepared to face life's challenges.

There is an increased risk of depression and anxiety in children with obesity, possibly due to social stigma and psychological challenges. Children with obesity may be often teased or bullied by their friends in school.

How to Prevent Childhood Obesity?

  1. Practice healthy eating habits

    • Serving a variety of fruits and vegetables is one way to start teaching healthy eating habits. Ensure your child has a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Every meal, including snacks, should include a "rainbow" of fruits and vegetables.
    • Snacks can become a part of a healthy diet if you schedule them for specific times throughout the day. Have nutritious snacks readily available.
    • Limit consumption of soft drinks and, high-fat, high-calorie fast food and processed food.
    • Ensure your child eats a healthy breakfast daily and avoid skipping meals as it may lead to overeating during the next meal.
    • Avoid using food as a reward.

    Read more:

  2. Increase physical activity

    • Aim for at least 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
    • Limit screen time and sedentary activities.
    • Make plans for activities such as walking, biking, sports, and active play that involve everyone in the family.
  3. Set a good example

    • Model healthy behaviours by being physically active and making nutritious food choices. Your child follows in your footsteps. 
    • Main meals should be taken together with the family. Avoid watching television and mobile devices during mealtime.
  4. Ensure your child has enough sleep

    • Establish a regular bedtime routine and keep electronic devices out of the bedroom at night.

Make an Appointment at Pantai Hospitals

Embrace a lifestyle that prioritises healthy habits for your children. Nurture a love for nutritious foods, encourage regular physical activity, and limit screen time.

A dedicated and expert team of paediatricians at Pantai Hospital is available for consultation to provide the best care and assistance. Get in touch with us to book an appointment today if you have any concerns or questions about obesity in children. 

Pantai Hospital has been accredited by the Malaysian Society for Quality in Health (MSQH) for its commitment to patient safety and service quality.

Thank you for your patience