Public Enemy Number One: Childhood Obesity
The statistics about childhood obesity are alarming. In 2013, there were more than 42 million children considered obese or overweight. These numbers are expected to reach nearly 70 million by the year 2025, if the current trend continues. There is no question that if no intervention is undertaken then these children will continue to gain weight during adolescence and adulthood. Obesity is not a trivial disorder but associated with a number of serious health problems that include an increased risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and cancer. The obesity epidemic is not just an American thing but now is evident in most Western Nations, Europe, Asia, and even some parts of Africa.
Obesity is now appearing in children as young as 6 years of age. The highest rates are now seen in children between ages 12-17 and no race or ethnic population is immune from weight gain. Obesity is not a disorder that one can outgrow, but in fact, usually worsens with advancing age. Once obesity develops, it can lead to whole host of complications that have a high medical cost. Children with obesity tend to develop high sugar levels, elevated cholesterol levels and even have high blood pressure. The cost of care of these complications is in the billions of dollars each year. In general, obese patients tend to have a shorter lifespan than non-obese individuals.
The potential for disease, poor quality of life, and exorbitant costs to the healthcare system have now called for action.
The problem with obesity is that it is difficult to reverse. There is no simple cure for the disorder. Unlike adults, there are no approved medications for weight loss in children. These drugs have far too many adverse effects and the long-term complications remain unknown. Bariatric surgery has been approved for obese adults but not for children, who are still growing. In addition, bariatric surgery is also associated with life-threatening complications. Finally, bariatric surgery is also prohibitively expensive for most people.
Thus, the major thrust of managing obesity in children has focused on some type of exercise and educating parents on the importance of diet. So far, parents have failed to change their eating habits or lifestyle and this has greatly hampered the control of obesity in children. Now experts have turned to schools for help. One of the ways to tackle the problem is by ensuring that children eat healthy foods at school and enroll in some type of exercise program . While this is a noble venture, it alone is not sufficient to reverse the obesity epidemic. Without the involvement of parents, it is unlikely that any program can succeed. The fight to reverse obesity has to start in the home and then extend to the school. While the school may offer healthy meals, there is only so much exercise they can offer during school hours. Most schools usually have unsupervised outdoor activity but whether the child actually participates in exercise is not enforced. To ensure that school programs work, the exercise has to be regular and has to be much more than just going outside for an hour (according to CDC, 2016). Further, schools have additional limitations; they generally do not have the time to allow all students to go outside and exercise. At most, schools may send children for physical activity once or twice a week and this is not adequate. Plus, without proper exercise, one does not burn calories.
Evidence shows that exercise must be a key feature of any weight loss program. Finally, what happens when the child goes home? Do the parent’s monitor what the child eats or performs any type of activity? In many cases, the parents are at work or even when they are home, they are too busy with their own lives. Any school program that decides to counter obesity must actively involve parents. Parents need to be educated and made aware of nutritional habits and the importance of exercise. A comprehensive change in lifestyle is needed at home for this program to succeed. Unfortunately, the world of children today is more complicated and family dynamics are not easy to solve (Hyman, 2016). Some parents may not be willing to change and in other cases, the child may not have parents. Just asking parents to enter the child in an exercise program is not always practical as these programs are expensive- most of the children who have obesity also come from low-income families and may not have the funds. Eating healthy is also an expensive affair- the world of nutrition is a multi-billion dollar business and to eat healthy, one also needs to have money. Until some type of national agenda is established, it appears that childhood obesity is soon going to become a nightmare for both parents and healthcare workers.