Obesity among children is becoming an epidemic in our society. About 17 percent (12.7 million) of children and adolescents from 2-19 are obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) over the 95th percentile compared to other children in that same age. Children are overweight when their BMI is over the 85th percentile compared to others in the same age range. Obesity rates vary among different racial, ethnic, income and education level. Children of non-white, lower educated and lower-income parents have higher rates of obesity than their counterparts.
Children are eating more sugar and unhealthy fats than ever before. Multiple studies have now linked diets high in unhealthy fat, sugar and salt to poor cognitive ability, specifically on attention, decision-making, impulse control and memory. These deficits can have a negative impact in school performance and being healthy. A lack of impulse control, for instance, makes it difficult to resist the temptation of sweet and fatty foods because of a desire for instance gratification.
Brain imaging studies have shown brain structural changes in obese children. Furthermore, obese children have more health problems and are absent from school more often than non-obese children. They can have difficulties in academics, which may be a function of the cognitive impairments.
Furthermore, obesity can lead to emotional issues, such as anxiety and depression. Often obese children are bullied by other children, which can be especially traumatic to a child. As a coping mechanism, sweet and fatty foods become a coping mechanism to deal with distressing feelings, including anxiousness, worry, sadness, guilt, and shame.
How do we improve the health of our children?
Behavioral change, education, and community involvement can help to improve obesity rates.
- Education: Children must learn about healthy eating choices. Many children don’t know about the basic concepts of nutrition. Additionally, parents can act as role models and teach their children about eating well. Teaching about mindful eating is a well-researched and effective skill to help regulate eating.
- Access to Nutritious Foods: Both parents and schools should provide children access to nutritious foods and limit processed, sugary, and fatty foods from the diet.
- Limit Portion Size: Limiting portion sizes can help to reduce food consumption. Portion sizes have grown over the years and many children will eat more if given a larger portion of food.
- Limit Negative Ads: Children are bombarded with ads about processed foods, such as fast food. Limiting exposure to these ads and promoting healthier food options through social media, television and throughout the community can help to contribute to positive eating changes.
- Exercise: Children should be given adequate space and time to be active. Exercise not only serves to maintain weight, it provides stress relief and contributes to healthy brain functioning.
- Behavioral Health Support: Working with a psychologist who focuses on health issues, children learn to make lifestyle changes to promote their health and emotional well-being. Additionally, in therapy, any emotional issues related to being obese and/or bullied can be addressed.