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The Growing Epidemic: Understanding Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is defined as a condition in which a child has excess body weight that affects their overall health. Diagnosis is made using the WHO growth charts for weight, height, and body mass index. Therefore, when a child is above the 95th percentile on these charts, they are diagnosed with obesity.

It is one of the most pressing issues that health professionals have been called to address in recent years. Childhood obesity has seen significant increases over the past few decades. The statistics are quite alarming. The World Health Organization reports that in 2016, 18% of children aged 5 to 19 were overweight or obese! These rates are triple those of 1975. Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 41 million children under the age of 5 worldwide who are overweight or obese, while the corresponding number for children aged 5 to 19 is more than 124 million. While high-income countries tend to have higher rates of childhood obesity, low- and middle-income countries are experiencing a rapid increase in prevalence. In some urban areas of Africa, the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children under 5 years old is higher than 30%.

More specific data for Europe show that obesity rates range from 5 to 25% in European countries. The highest rates, around 25%, are observed in the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece. This is quite interesting and should give us pause for thought, as the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest diets; however, Mediterranean countries also have the highest obesity rates. In these same countries, lower rates of physical activity in the population are also observed.

Predisposing and risk factors

What are the reasons that the prevalence has risen so sharply? Initially, the development of obesity is largely attributed to the individual's lifestyle. Excessive food consumption, especially low-nutrient foods, combined with a sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical activity result in a positive energy balance and weight gain. Lifestyle choices are heavily influenced by the standards set by the child's parents and relatives, particularly in the early years of life. Beyond lifestyle, genetics play a significant role as they influence metabolism, appetite regulation, fat storage, and other functions affecting body weight.

The administration of certain medications can also affect body weight. Drugs such as corticosteroids, antidepressants,beta-blockers, antihistamines and anxiolytics have appetite-stimulating effects and often lead to weight gain or fluid retention in individuals. Even sleep has an impact on weight, as inadequate or poor-quality sleep has been strongly associated with obesity due to disrupted hormone production. Finally, environmental, psychological, and cultural factors that contribute to obesity, including inadequate facilities for exercise, reduced availability and increased cost of fresh foods, high availability of unhealthy foods, peer pressure, as well as traditions and societal norms.

What are the impacts?

The effects of obesity on a child are numerous and affect many aspects of their health and life. Initially, obesity alone is a risk factor for the development of a plethora of other pathological conditions threatening life. Some of these include the development of cardiovascular abnormalities, type 2 diabetes mellitus, respiratory problems, metabolic syndrome, disordered lipid profiles, liver disease, problems with the gastrointestinal system, hormonal abnormalities, and even issues with the musculoskeletal system. All these conditions significantly burden the healthcare system! Consider that in 2018, the United States spent $14.1 billion on managing and treating conditions related to childhood obesity.

The impact of obesity on a child's mental health is significant. Children with obesity often face issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. A very common phenomenon is for these children to experience bullying at school from their peers and to receive negative comments even from members of their own family. Consequently, they are stigmatized by others and labeled as "fat" or "chubby" kids. All of this contributes to low self-esteem, and there is a high likelihood that it may later lead to an eating disorder, with the relationship with weight and diet becoming obsessive. Therefore, there arises a significant difficulty in the individual's socialization. Additionally, there is often difficulty in the child's activities, especially those involving physical activity. Thus, the overall quality of life of the child is limited.

What we have to do to reverse this situation

As the disease known as obesity is increasing at an alarming rate and its complications are diverse both for children and for their later adult life, it becomes clear that ways need to be found to prevent or reverse this condition. Obesity requires a collective approach and cooperation. Society needs to promote a healthier lifestyle by initially creating sports facilities, organizing lectures and activities in schools, and actively encouraging the consumption of healthier foods by removing taxes on them. Finally, they can provide nourishing meals to families in need so that everybody can enjoy a better quality of life.

All health professionals need to emphasize the importance of breastfeeding in preventing obesity, the significance of physical activity for children for at least 60 minutes a day, and the consumption of all necessary nutrients. Equally important is good and sufficient sleep. Health professionals such as pediatricians and dietitians must be responsible for educating the entire family on how to eat and monitor their adherence to guidelines. 

However, recommendations alone won't make a difference. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) also holds a significant position in the treatment of obesity. Changing the thoughts and emotions triggered by situations, creating new, more positive ones, and managing conditions have proven highly effective in fundamentally changing behaviors and improving life in all aspects. Both health professionals and the child and their family, through specific techniques, can recognize the problematic behaviors that have led to this situation. Then, we need to understand from which thoughts and emotions these behaviors arise, delving into the problem. Initially, we try to change these thoughts, thus addressing the problem at its source. This will automatically lead to the reduction of the behaviors that these thoughts provoke. Parental involvement in this case should not be negative. They should not be the judges in the household, causing anxiety and forcing the child to do everything perfectly by the book. Instead, they should be empowerers, encouraging every effort while effectively contributing to managing relapses. The main goal of CBT is to remove anxiety from situations, and parents help at the beginning until the child can independently transform their negative thoughts and fears into positive ones and motivations for change.


Therefore, we need to pay greater attention to childhood obesity. It is an urgent need for society to act collectively and find ways to reverse this increasing condition. If we do not address obesity from childhood, individuals growing up will never be able to tackle it as it becomes an entrenched condition. Thus, the prevalence of obesity in adults will increase even more abruptly, and the frequency of complications will become even higher, excessively burdening healthcare systems. It's like a cascade reaction where one thing leads to another as a natural progression.

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The article is very well written and tackles a topic that has become increasingly prevalent worldwide: childhood obesity. The author highlights various contributing factors, such as parental influence, genetics, and the surrounding environment. I saw myself reflected in many of the situations described, finding parallels to my own experiences. I thank the author for addressing this topic with clarity

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