“She likes to eat,” the mother said. She didn’t have to spell it out. It was obvious that her child at the age of nine was well on her way to become obese. I counseled clients like her before. They keep coming to my practice on a regular basis. Children as young as three or four years old are being diagnosed with multiple health problems caused by excess weight. Sadly, they will have to cope with the consequences for the rest of their lives. They are cut off from their future in so many ways, and so unnecessarily.
There are the physical aspects. Too much fat in a growing body wreaks havoc all around, from bones and muscles to vital organs. Overweight and obese children and teenagers are at an immediate risk of heart disease due to high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. Most are pre-diabetic, meaning they are likely to develop full-blown type 2 diabetes before they reach adulthood. Their bones and joints, unable to carry the extra weight, will weaken and in many cases deform. The list of potentially catastrophic outcomes goes on.
Many of the health issues they are facing early on will only worsen as they grow older. Most will continue to struggle with weight management and related diseases for as long as they live. The long-term effects can become ever more severe, and at some point acutely life-threatening. Premature death from heart failure, stroke or cancer is a real possibility.
For children, the psychological impact of being overweight is equally as menacing. Many suffer from a poor body image and low self-esteem. Depression and suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among older kids and adolescents who struggle with their appearance. Some develop eating disorders and engage in other dysfunctional and detrimental behavior, like under-age smoking, drinking and drug use.
For parents, it can be hard to acknowledge that their offspring is having weight issues. They may hesitate to address the subject because they don’t want to hurt their child’s feelings and make things worse. If they are themselves on the heavy side, they may not see a ‘little chubbiness’ as such a big deal. Or they blame it on their family’s genetic makeup. Or they hope their kid will eventually outgrow it all.
That may be the case for some, but unfortunately, not for most. Childhood obesity is real and it has taken on epidemic proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), weight problems plague twice as many children and four times as many adolescents than just a generation ago. One in three is now diagnosed as overweight or obese before the age of 18.
We are not helpless in the face of this crisis. Enough information on how to address the underlying problems is available. We know what to do. What we need is to be clear-sighted and determined to take the necessary steps that can reverse these trends.
There are multiple obvious culprits we know contribute to childhood obesity. Poor diets consisting of fast food and sugary drinks are among them. So is lack of exercise and physical education (PE) in schools. None of these issues are isolated or occur in a vacuum, and I have written plenty about many of them and how they connect with one another.
But foremost – and this cannot be overemphasized – it is the parents who must act as gatekeepers. They are the ones who ultimately control what goes into their children’s mouths. If there is junk food in the house, the kids will eat it. If there are sodas, they will gulp them down. If these things are not brought home, the kids will not even develop a taste for them, let alone overindulge.
This is a choice all parents can make. Yes, healthy food can be more expensive and may not even be readily available everywhere. Yes, not all communities have parks, bike paths or swimming pools. Some may not even be safe enough for kids to play outside without supervision. But alternatives can be found and investments can be made if we only care enough.
The risks are too high and the damages too serious to ignore what’s at stake here. The children who fall prey to these diseases will never live their lives to the fullest and will probably succumb far too soon. For them this is nothing short of a nightmare. It doesn’t have to be this way. It must not.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog at www.timigustafson.com.