Childhood obesity – what you need to know

Overweight boy
In the UK today around one million children under 16 are obese according to the British Medical Association (BMA). Childhood obesity is now referred to as a 'time bomb', but what does this mean for the health of our children?

As many as three or four children in a typical UK school class could be affected by childhood obesity. And the future is not looking too healthy either, with the BMA estimating that if current trends continue, at least one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese by 2020.

What is child obesity?

The term ‘obesity’ refers to a person’s physical state of being seriously overweight for their age and height. Children’s health expert and author of Child Obesity: A Parent’s Guide, Judith Manson explains, “Childhood obesity is not a disease which strikes at random; it’s a condition that can occur because of particular circumstances and it’s a condition that can be very successfully treated and prevented from recurring.”

Childhood obesity can be brought on by a range of factors. They are:

  • An unhealthy diet. Fast foods, processed foods, fizzy sugary drinks, constant snacking on junk foods, and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables can all contribute.
  • Lack of exercise. A sedentary lifestyle, with little physical exertion to burn off the excess calories consumed can lead to a child becoming obese.
  • Genetics. There are a number of rare genetic conditions which can cause childhood obesity. However, if parents are aware the child may have inherited this from them, then every precaution should be taken to ensure obesity doesn’t manifest itself in the child.
  • Home lifestyle. As a parent you are a role model for your children. Setting good examples with eating habits and physical activity can affect your child’s weight.

The health risks

Unfortunately, childhood obesity carries some very real. There are short term difficulties, such as tooth decay from high sugar diets, fungal infections under excess flaps of skin, and digestion problems.

However, there are also longer term illnesses which can lead to serious health problems. Research has shown that obese children are at a higher risk of hardened or blocked arteries, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes. As adults they will be more at risk from heart attacks and bowel cancer. The excess weight can also put extra pressure on developing joints and bones, leading to difficulties with breathing, vision, and possibly causing chronic aches and pains.

As with adults, a child who is obese can also suffer from psychological problems, such as low self-esteem, depression, and lack of confidence.

Tackling childhood obesity

  • If you’re worried about your child’s weight visit a GP who will recommend the right course of action. They will also refer your child to a dietician who can give expert advice about a healthy eating plan.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about what can be done in school.
  • Start looking at your child’s eating habits and diet. Increase their fresh fruit and vegetable intake – five a day is the recommended daily allowance - and reduce fat intake.
  • Sit down to regular family mealtimes. Discuss what healthy foods your child likes and use them in recipes.
  • Avoid sugary drinks and processed foods.
  • Be a positive role model. Don’t expose your child to negativity about healthy eating. Give plenty of praise and encouragement to boost their motivation.
  • Make sure your child is getting plenty of exercise. Go on walks and play physical outdoor games as a family.