Childhood obesity a big fat problem

Know a child who is fat or obese? Here's all you need to know about childhood obesity and the ways in which you can deal with that.

By Yamini Vijendran  • 10 min read

Childhood obesity a big fat problem

In a culture that loves cherubic babies, it's hard to catch childhood obesity. Unfortunate but true. A ‘heavy’ kid is seen as a ‘healthy’ kid while a lean one is looked at as a ‘thin’ child. One thing I regularly get asked by well-meaning neighbours and relatives – why is your son so thin? Now, he is a lean kid, but tall for his age, having taken after his father while I am the rolly-polly in our home. It almost makes me wonder whether the questioner thinks I eat all the food and starve the kid and his dad. I usually resist the urge to snap at them and instead, answer with a pasted smile, “No aunty, he is just right for his age.”

It is not really their fault. Who doesn’t like a chubby child? When I posed this question to my son’s paediatrician, she hit back at me. “Do you want a healthy child or someone prone to all the diseases in the world?” she asked. Fat may look cute on a child, but it becomes a huge problem if carried into adulthood. Childhood obesity continues to rise to alarming proportions throughout the world.

Statistics reveal that nearly 20% of children in India are obese and a further 30% fall in ‘under-the-risk’ category. Not surprisingly, these numbers are high in urban households.

11% of students studying in government schools fall under the obese category as compared to 25% from the private schools. That is quite alarming and clearly indicative of the risky urban lifestyle. Dr. Chander Asrani, a leading physician in Mumbai, muses in his blog, “In my 36 years of practice, I have not had a mother who worried about her child being overweight!” No surprises then that July 2013 saw an 11-year-old, Sanchita Bose undergo the weight-loss bariatric surgery.

Never too early for BMI

When I first came to live in Pune, some of my colleagues referred to a borderline obese woman as ‘healthy’. I realised then that ‘healthy’ is the new and supposedly decent euphemism for fat. But, can there ever be anything healthy about obesity? A person is said to be obese when their Body Mass Index (BMI) is greater than 30. BMI is a function of your weight and height, calculated as –

BMI = Weight (kgs)

[Height (mts)]^2

Ideally, a person’s BMI should be less than 25. A BMI of 25 to 29 places one in the overweight category. A large percentage of overweight children tend to grow into obese adults, if not course-corrected early on.

More often than not, childhood obesity is the result of multiple factors working simultaneously. Research indicates that there is a direct relationship between birth weight and BMI. Longer duration of breastfeeding is found to reduce the risk of obesity as a child grows. Malfunction of the endocrinal glands and the resultant changes in metabolism also result in an increased BMI.

Changing lifestyles a big risk

Most people agree that childhood obesity is associated with changing cultures. Radical lifestyle changes, lack of physical activity and excessive intake of junk food are considered to be the most important reasons for increased rates of childhood obesity.

Vijayalakshmi, mother of two, rues how her children prefer pizzas and burgers to idli and upma.

Back then, most of us travelled to school on foot or on bicycles. Today most children take the school bus or the van, or the parents drop them off at school. “With schools being as far away as 10 kms, we are left with no choice but to resort to automobile transportation for our kids, denying them the exercise that came with walking or cycling to school,” says Jyoti, mother of two.

Where is the activity?

When I was a kid, the only form of entertainment was playing out on the streets with other kids. Games like hide-and-seek, run-and-catch, hopscotch, crocodile and country were popular. We used to rush home from school, gulp down the evening milk and snack, and shoot outside to meet our friends. During rainy days, time was spent playing carrom, business, ludo or snakes & ladders.

Today, I see children spend more time in fast-food joints, or in front of gaming consoles and the TV. Sedentary lifestyle coupled with increased intake of high fat, high-calorie food becomes the perfect recipe for obesity.

Act, don’t react

Obesity is only the precursor to a Pandora’s Box of problems. Any machine that does not get its share of activity begins rusting and falling apart. The human body is no different. Says Dr. Sabnis, my son’s paediatrician, “Children lounge on the couches after returning from school, eating calorie-filled junk food like wafers, pizzas and chocolates. With no way of burning the calories, thanks to little or no playtime, such children are at a greater risk of developing hitherto adult diseases like diabetes and cardio-vascular disorders.”

Obesity, in the long run, can lead to hypertension and increased blood glucose levels, leading to heart attacks, artery blockages and Type-2 diabetes.

While the physiological dangers are grave by themselves, obese children also go through mental turmoil. They suffer from the stigma of discrimination and isolation on account of being fat. Obese children tend to be reclusive in nature, shy to mix with their peers, and happy in their own world. A study conducted on 5000 school children in the US suggests that obesity is negatively linked to the traditional evaluation of success in the society. Children suffering from obesity usually have a low self-esteem, lack confidence and are introverts by nature.

Eating right is the key

Oh yeah! We all know the diktats – Thou shall not feed on junk food; Thou shall exercise regularly. But who really follows that? Unfortunately, there is no easy way out. Healthy eating and regular physical activity are the only best ways to keep your child’s body fit and hold obesity at bay. Shun that TV, get your child off the couch and out in the open, take her out to the park, make jogging or cycling a regular part of her leisure activities. Encourage her to take up a sport or a hobby.

Dancing to stay fit is a new phenomenon that is catching up in many cities across the country. Dr. Nikita Mittal, a certified dance therapist, conducts Danz-o-fit classes for both children and adults. Having been a participant of these classes myself, I cannot begin to describe the energy and enthusiasm when we dance to popular tunes, with steps carefully designed to exercise every muscle in our body. Children too enjoy these classes and look forward to grooving their way to health.

Dr. Nikita adds, “It is really OK even if you eat vada pav once in a while; but ensure you make it at home and eat, compared to eating outside.” It is also recommended to reduce the intake of refined flour, like maida, present in bread, pizza bases and burger buns. Instead, go for whole grain options. The less-cooked your food is, the more its nutrition is preserved. This is especially true for fruits and vegetables. Try to include salads in your diet as regularly as possible. You can make them interesting by adding chat masala or salad dressings.

Are you leading by example?

Keeping childhood obesity at bay is not difficult, but it requires a lot of determination and commitment on the part of parents to practice what they preach to their children. After all, children learn from what their parents do. So if you are going to give in to the temptations of convenient junk food and laziness, your children are going to follow suit. Resolve to make a shift to a healthy lifestyle today, so you can ensure a healthy tomorrow for both, your children and you.

Yamini Vijendran is a freelance writer, an author from Pune.