Obesity has become a major public health problem in the UK and other developed countries. It has a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of people affected, and of the UK health care system we know as the NHS. Obesity that develops in childhood will remain throughout life unless it is tackled with lifestyle measures such as healthy eating and activity patterns. These are tackled more easily in young children (than in teenagers or adults) when lifestyle habits are still being developed. Avoiding becoming overweight in childhood through adopting a balanced approach to eating and activity is the best way do this.
What causes obesity?
Medical causes for obesity are rare, and most obesity in this country is due an excess of calories eaten in relation to calories spent in physical activity. This is known as positive energy balance. In childhood, when energy intake is regularly greater than energy output in activity and for growth and development, the extra energy is stored as fat. The wisdom of a the low fat diet as advocated over the last generation has often meant that energy has been replaced with sugars. Sugar intakes have risen steadily over the last two decades and many expert groups now believe that sugar is a more potent cause of obesity than fat. Other factors do play a part – such as genetics, social circumstances and environmental factors. Most recently, the bacterial microflora in our guts have been implicated in the obesity epidemic theory.
Sugars and fats both contain calories, which if eaten is excess will cause weight gain. Sugar contains empty calories, in other words, have no other nutritional value. For our bodies to use sugar, valuable nutrients like zinc are needed to process it; the higher the sugar intake, the higher the loss of valuable nutrition. Fats, however, are a valuable source of essential nutrients when the right types of fats are eaten. Liquid fats eg. oils from plants, seeds, nuts and fish contain Omega 3 and 6 essential fats needed in childhood for brain growth and development as well as circulatory and immune function. So, when thinking about getting the balance right, choose good fats, eat in moderation and ditch the empty calories where you can.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is the measure of the ratio of height and weight that is used to describe body composition, otherwise known as fatness or thinness. Using child growth charts and centile lines, obesity is the term used when a child’s measured BMI is >98th centile and overweight is the terms used when >91st centile.
Poor health outcomes for obesity
Overweight and obese children face more problems at school with increased bullying, less participation in sports and lower achievement at school. Young children who remain obese into later childhood are at risk of low levels of fitness, self-esteem and quality of life. Teenagers may develop eating disorders in efforts to control their weight, and adults have associated chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, poor mobility and cancer. See my blog on 10 tips on maintaining a healthy weight.