Childhood obesity has skyrocketed in recent years. While it’s a steady increase that began before COVID-19, the pandemic only exacerbated the issue. Children today are less active than they used to be—and they’re also facing an increased amount of stress.
The natural outlet for stress is exercise, but with plenty of homework and extracurricular activities, many kids don’t have time for physical activity. Add our convenience-food culture into the mix—where families grab food on the go—and it’s not surprising American kids are getting heavier. Even active kids can’t out-exercise a bad diet, particularly when you consider they would have to run for about a half hour just to burn the amount of calories in one juice box.
That’s a big problem, particularly since for many kids, being overweight isn’t just a phase. In fact, researchers suspect developing bodies are especially vulnerable to the negative health effects of childhood obesity, placing them at risk for chronic disease—both now and years down the line. Among the top concerns:
- High blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Kids who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Over time, this can cause plaque to accumulate on the artery walls, which leads to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke later in life. Typically, we don’t see hardened arteries until someone reaches their 50s or 60s, but today we’re seeing kids in their teens who have plaque buildup. That means their hearts must work harder to pump blood throughout the body.
- Type 2 diabetes. While type 2 diabetes has risen to epidemic levels among adults, it is also increasingly being recognized in children and adolescents due to childhood obesity. The condition affects the way your child’s body responds to insulin, which leads to increased glucose (sugar) in the blood. Children and adolescents who develop diabetes are also at greater risk for heart disease and kidney failure.
- Bone and joint issues. Being overweight puts extra pressure on the joints and causes cartilage to wear down. This can eventually lead to osteoarthritis. While osteoarthritis is more common in older ages, being overweight or obese can cause people to develop it at younger ages.
- Fatty liver disease. In its beginning stages, fatty liver disease can be a silent disease. But as it progresses, it can cause symptoms like fatigue, fluid retention and bleeding. If it continues to progress and goes untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis, which is permanent scarring of the liver. The only treatment for cirrhosis is liver transplant.
- Sleep apnea. Does your child snore? He or she could have sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that causes you to stop breathing for 10 seconds or more during sleep. The condition is more common in overweight and obese children because they have more soft tissue around the esophagus. This soft tissue actually folds in over the airway, preventing them from getting adequate oxygen. In addition to the health risks involved with sleep apnea, children also tend to suffer from sleepiness during the school day, which can impact academic performance.
- Social anxiety. Childhood obesity may lead to bullying, which can cause depression and low self-esteem. And the pervasiveness of social media can often worsen the issue.
How To Be Proactive About Your Child’s Health
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends early, intensive intervention in hopes that your child can get on a healthier path as soon as possible. For example, you could start by having them see a dietitian and participate in programs that focus on healthy lifestyle habits.
Don’t wait to involve their pediatrician, who can offer valuable guidance. Schedule regular well visits and keep track of your child’s growth chart. Make sure you know your child’s height, weight and body mass index (BMI). Ask your pediatrician whether screening for heart disease and type 2 diabetes is warranted.
Make sure you model healthy behaviors, since children imitate adults. Limit screen time (this includes TV, computers, phones and other electronic devices) to no more than 2 hours daily. Help them stay active with a nightly after-dinner stroll. Remove calorie-rich foods and stock the fridge with freshly cut fruits and vegetables.
If your child is in an environment where sweet treats and junk food are diet mainstays, they’ll likely develop unhealthy eating habits that will become difficult to break later on. The earlier you set them up for a healthy lifestyle, chances are, the easier it will be for them to stick to it throughout their life.
To find a pediatrician at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness for Henry Ford LiveWell. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in midtown Detroit and Sterling Heights. Learn more about Dr. Leatherwood Cannon.