Facing the facts – here’s what you need to know about obesity in children

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Being overweight is hard – you can ask any grown-up who battles to lose weight. It is not something that a young child should have to experience.  And yet obesity in children and adolescents has become a worldwide epidemic. According to the 2019 Child Gauge Report, a shocking 13.3% of South African children below the age of 5 years are overweight. This is more than double the global prevalence which is 5.6%. And this percentage increases as children grow into teenagers.

Obesity in children – facing the facts

Acknowledging that there may be a problem

As a mom, I know how hard it is to keep all the balls in the air. Sometimes it feels like there are so many crucial things that I have to do to keep my kids healthy, well-fed, to give them the right (expensive) supplements, to ensure their emotional wellbeing, to keep them stimulated, to reduce screen time and to provide them with opportunities. When reading about these topics I realise how often I am failing, and I experience anxiety over the possible harm that I have already caused. I think many parents experience these emotions.

You only want what is best for your child, and you don’t want to feel that you have failed them somehow. Perhaps this is why so many parents simply choose not to believe that their children are overweight. ‘He’s got a bigger build’ or ‘she still has some baby fat’ are common responses. Plus you love them just the way they are, and in your eyes they are perfect.

But here’s the thing. If your little one is exceptionally chubby, or if you are buying clothes in sizes much bigger than their age, you should consider the possibility that there may be a problem.

READ MORE: How To Introduce Baby-led Weaning

Why is being overweight such a big concern?

Many parents feel that their children will outgrow the problem as time passes. But sadly this is often not true. A child still struggling with overweight by the age of five years have got a very big chance of continuing on this road into adulthood.

As for grown-ups, there are various health problems linked to children being overweight:

  • Being overweight can cause poor self-esteem and social difficulties, and can lead to a child being bullied and discriminated against. This is not fair, but unfortunately a reality in the sometimes cruel world we live in.
  • Overweight can cause breathing problems like sleep apnoea, which is pauses in breathing and shallow breathing that happens in one’s sleep. In children, this can lead to fatigue, delays in growth and development, and heart problems.
  • Joint and musculoskeletal (muscle and bone) discomfort.
  • Heartburn and reflux.
  • Fatty liver disease, which literally means high-fat contents in the liver. In the early stages, this can be reversed, but it is often not diagnosed in may be the start of serious liver problems later in life like liver cancer and liver failure.
  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol.
  • Heart disease.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Malnutrition – ironically enough overweight is very often linked to a child not getting all the nutrients they need. This as the excess weight is typically not caused by nutritious snacks. Many little ones will suffer from shortages. If these are severe a child may grow less in centimetres (length), yet weigh too much.

Get a proper diagnosis

It would really be best to see a clinic or doctor to assist you with your child’s measurements and to determine if these are normal.

Many websites that write about overweight in children will mention Body Mass Index (BMI) and say that a BMI above 25 is considered overweight. This is a guideline for grown-ups and it should not be applied to children. In children, BMI is interpreted completely differently. Depending on the age a child can have a weight issue at a BMI far lower than 25.

There are also better measures to use than just BMI. A clinic sister, doctor or dietician can help you to interpret your child’s weight also taking into account his/her age, built, length and head circumference. This way you can know that your little one is not simply being labelled, but that there really is a problem and that the measures you are taking are necessary.

If it is true, can obesity in children be reversed?

The wonderful answer to this question is that yes, it can. In fact, some studies show that early childhood obesity that gets treated and resolved will in most cases not have an effect on adult health.

There are many wonderful tips for a healthier diet and lifestyle for children. But if your child is truly overweight you will need more in-depth assistance. Visiting a dietician that works with children is worthwhile.

Another harsh truth is that very often a child’s weight status reflects the whole family’s lifestyle habits. You may need to make adaptations for everyone, not only for the child.  This is a very difficult thing to do and support will make all the difference.

A last word for all parents

Some children will obviously be more prone to extra kilos than others (just like grown-ups). Remember though that even if your child’s weight is still normal, unhealthy habits like excessive calorie intake, too little physical activity and hours in front of the television is still detrimental to their health, and may lead to many of the health problems caused by overweight.

Your health is probably your biggest asset. Grown-ups can make choices that may lead to health problems that will have massive effects on their future lives. But at least the choice was theirs. Small children cannot take the responsibility for their own lifestyle habits; that onus rests in their parents’ hands.

One of these choices is on how you are going to act if you have identified a problem. Every day is the first day of the rest of your life. It is never too late to bring about positive change.

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Christine Klynhans is a midwife and lactation consultant with a firm believe that gentle parenting can change the world. She has worked in midwifery since competing her B.Cur nursing degree in 2004, and has a special passion for education and for writing. She currently works in a well-baby clinic and give antenatal classes and breastfeeding support. She enjoys working with parents of babies and toddlers, aiming to help them find gentle solutions to their parenting problems and assisting them in incorporating healthy habits and natural health alternatives into their daily lives.