Childhood obesity: what are we doing to our children?
Childhood obesity: what are we doing to our children?
It seems clear that childhood obesity is one of the most serious global public health challenges of this century, affecting every country in the world. Indeed, it could be called a global calamity:
“In just 40 years the number of school-age children and adolescents with obesity has risen more than 10-fold, from 11 million to 124 million, by 2016 estimates. In addition, an estimated 216 million children were classified as overweight but not obese in 2016. The condition also affects younger children, with over 38 million children aged under 5 living with overweight or obesity in 2017.”
China has the highest number of obese children in the world, with15.3 million in 2018. Even India, a country with huge child poverty and malnutrition, in 2018 had 14.4 million obese children, the second highest number in the world.
The World Obesity Federation (‘WOF’), a community of organisations dedicated to solving the problem of obesity, and the World Health Organization (‘WHO’) are seriously concerned and have asked:
What are the causes of childhood obesity?
It’s no surprise that the conclusion was that the principal cause of childhood overweight and obesity is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended, attributable to a number of factors, including:
- A global shift in diet towards increased intake of energy-dense foods, such as fast and processed foods that are high in fat and sugars
- A trend towards decreased physical activity levels due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
But is it as simple as calories in, calories out?
The issue of childhood obesity has been discussed for decades, yet children and the general population are continuing to gain weight. It is not as simple as ‘eat less, exercise more’ – the underlying issues are more intangible and complex, otherwise diet and weight loss would be the solution.
If it were that clean cut, why do we have a global childhood obesity epidemic that is increasing daily?
What sense does it make to keep touting ‘eat less, exercise more’ when this hasn’t worked, as shown by the glaring 10-fold increase in childhood obesity?
We need to look deeper into the underlying reasons why our children are putting on more and more weight, and the implications for our future, as these children become adults and parents themselves.
Could it be that the reasons attributed to obesity and being overweight are not the ones we think they are?
Is it possible that, along with other contributing factors, such as the excessive energy intake from food:
- there is a driving force that is leading us to eat when we feel bad, sad, mad, upset or frustrated
- we use this driving force to not feel these things, which appears to solve that problem, but actually creates more entrenched problems as a result?
What do we need to look at as parents? It is very easy to fall into the trap of using food and drink to reward or placate our children, and to manage their behaviours.
If we are doing so, this is understandable – one of the challenges in our world is that food is everywhere, fast food chains predominate, vending machines sell soft drinks, flavoured milk and chocolate bars, nearly every shelf in the supermarket has treats and many billboards and television adverts tell us that we want and need them. It can be difficult for parents to refuse demands for treats, fast foods or the free toys offered by the fast food outlets, to not be caught by cleverly directed marketing or by the marketed ideal that it is good to take the family out for a ‘treat’ meal or to order pizza in. Another challenge is that many ‘natural’ snacks advertised as ‘healthy’, such as fruit roll-ups and fruit yoghurts, are overloaded with concentrated sugars and/or fat.
It can be an easy option to reach for fast foods and snacks rather than healthy food, and make that the norm; it can also be a temptation to put children in front of screens with constant snacks and treats. In addition, many adults use food as comfort and we pass on this behaviour to our children.
Another factor is that research shows that the food we have is loaded with ingredients set to make them irresistible to temptation. For example, the doughnut is the perfect sugar and fat combination to be completely delectable to the body. Sugar, carbohydrates and fat in just the right combination act upon the addictive pathways in the brain in such a way that our brain’s pleasure centres get a ‘double dose’ of ‘feel good’ chemicals. Science has called this the ‘supra-additive effect’, as more dopamine is released and this produces a much bigger feeling of reward – this is what makes foods such as donuts, chips, crisps and French fries so irresistible.
Children who are obese may face further difficulties, as other research suggests that in contrast to their normal weight classmates, obese children are more ‘hyper-responsive’ to food stimuli and, unlike normal weight children, their responsivity to food stimuli does not diminish significantly after eating compared to normal weight children. So obese children and their parents may face significant challenges, since the foods that feed the pleasure centers in our brain and offer us instant reward are irresistible, along with the challenge of obese children having a seemingly challenged internal mechanism to feel satiated.
Another challenge is that we can also be influenced by what our friends and family eat and drink, and we may want to fit in with certain rituals, such as ‘party food’ and ‘goody bags’ at children’s birthday parties, or something sweet in the children’s lunch boxes for school.
How do we break these patterns? We are lost in a food environment. How do we find our way out? Could we come back to basics and simply cook our own food, drink water, and use fresh food in season? Could we give up processed food or drink or the wrong kinds of fats or foods high in sugar, salt, starch and calories?
Can we ask what is it that drives us to eat the unhealthy food? As a starting point, we first need to be aware of the combined external forces that drive us to eat and drink certain things.
We know that weight-loss diets and exercise plans do not work long term. We need another approach. As well as clever marketing and foods that trigger the ‘reward’ parts of our brain, part of what is driving us to eat or drink is that we first do not connect to our whole bodies and second, we do not listen to what our bodies are telling us. Often we are not honest about the effect food and drinks have on us and our children.
The more we understand the forces that drive us to reach for certain foods when we are tired, upset or emotional, the more we may be able to choose differently for ourselves and our children. For example, we might observe that we reach for sweet foods when we are exhausted. Sweet snacks are convenient and may offer a quick sugar high that gets us over the hurdle of exhaustion in our day. What if we could pause and acknowledge that we are exhausted and understand that this is why we need the sweet food to pick us up?
As another example, when we eat chocolate do we understand that although we get an initial boost of energy, our energy drops later on? And have we ever considered the vicious cycle that consuming chocolate or other sugary foods or drinks might contribute to, for instance the afternoon crash when you need more sugar just to get by, or why it is hard to get to sleep at night and thus the sugar contributes to why we wake up exhausted in the first place. In the same way, we can observe the effect certain foods have on ourselves equally to our children, their moods, behaviours and bodies. Many parents have observed that their children are really racy and can’t calm down when they consume sugary foods and drinks: perhaps this observation might also be our own experience with how we are when we consume sugar – if we paused and observed ourselves.
As a starting point of change for our children, we could as adults become more observant of the connection between the food we are consuming and its impact upon our moods, vitality and wellbeing. If we could come to a ‘stop’ moment by connecting to our bodies, feeling the effects food has on us and also upon our children, then we might have the foundation to make better food choices for our families. We may then have the potential to not be caught up by the many external forces, including the enormous availability of sugary snacks, the marketing hype regarding fast food, and our children’s demands.
Perhaps then we might see the statistics for childhood – and adult – obesity and being overweight decrease 10-fold. Now that would be worth aiming for …