Childhood obesity rates on the rise
Biggest increases seen in kids ages 2 to 5.
Katie Mcpherson Published: 8/15/2018
One in five American children between age 2 and 19 are overweight or obese. In a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that obesity rates have been steadily climbing since 1999. Starting in 2015, the most significant increase in obesity has happened among children 2 to 5 years old.
Madeline Joseph, MD, medical director of the UF Health Pediatric Weight Management Center at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and chief of the division of pediatric bariatrics at the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville, sees the results of the study reflected in her own patients. However, she says there isn’t much data about why this increase is happening.
“I would say it’s a combination of the nutrition we’re taking in and our lifestyles,” said Dr. Joseph. “The amount of time kids spend playing outdoors today is negligible — the free play that used to be part of life doesn’t exist anymore. Serving sizes have also increased substantially in the last 50 years. We’re used to large serving sizes of food and drinks, and we’ve forgotten what an appropriately sized meal looks like.”
UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville pediatric cardiologist Shawyntee Mayo, MD, also cares for patients with the UF Health Pediatric Weight Management Center. She added that not only has the quantity of our food changed but so has the quality.
“Today, we have more screen time and less physical activity to expend calories,” Dr. Mayo said. “The quality of our food has shifted toward more processed, high-sugar foods and fast food as opposed to consuming fresh and natural foods,” she said.
The earlier in life a child becomes obese, the sooner they may be affected by its associated health conditions: type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis and sleep disorders.
“Studies have shown that changes that occur in the coronary arteries begin in childhood. It’s never too early to be concerned about plaque formation, which is the accumulation of cholesterol, fat and calcium that can narrow the arteries,” said Dr. Mayo.
Obesity in childhood impacts more than the body
While the physical impact of obesity is well known, the mental impact can be just as serious.
“Bullying is a huge issue,” Dr. Joseph said. “Many times, our patients say they don’t eat lunch because they don’t want to eat in front of people and they overeat when they go home. And if someone is worried about whether they’re going to be physically or verbally abused, it’s hard to concentrate in school.”
For that reason, poor nutrition can affect grades and comprehension in class.
“If they skip breakfast or eat a sugary breakfast like a Pop-Tart®, the body will produce insulin and the blood sugar will drop. By 9 am, they’re going to be irritable and unable to concentrate. If that’s when they have math every day, it could have a negative impact over time on their performance.”
But what could be causing obesity in children as young as 2 years old? At this age, many toddlers experience a dip in their weight as they reach their most active stage while also becoming pickier eaters.
“In the last year, I’ve been seeing significant, severe obesity in that age group — up to 150 pounds in a 5-year-old,” Dr. Joseph said. “We have accepted patients as young as age 2 to accommodate the needs we’re seeing in the community. There is not currently great data on why, but it likely depends on maternal diet and health during pregnancy, and the food and activities they have access to.”
Dr. Joseph and Dr. Mayo build personal connections with their patients to find out what motivates them to lose weight. It starts with the question, “What does being healthy mean to you?” They say that, for most children, it’s not about avoiding diabetes or heart disease. They want to play on the football team, run as fast as their friends or wear their dream dress to prom.
“We have to empower children and their families to make healthier choices,” said Dr. Joseph.
Top 5 takeaways to create a healthy lifestyle for your child
1. “Plan for breakfast. I know busy families don’t have time in the morning, so prepare something ahead of time with lean protein like yogurt or eggs. Stay away from high-sugar and high-carb breakfasts,” said Dr. Joseph.
2. “Eat a colorful diet. Taking a photo and assessing it like artwork can help,” said Dr. Joseph. “If it’s a boring photo and the plate is filled with only brown or beige foods, find ways to incorporate reds, greens, oranges and purples. Challenge your children to find colorful foods from the fridge to add to their plate. This is a different approach to add vegetables and fruits to their diet.”
3. “Minimize screen time as much as possible,” Dr. Mayo said. “Find ways to be active with your child, even if it’s not outside. You can jump rope or dance inside too — just focus on moving.”
4. “Meal times as a family are important. It may not happen every day, but make it a point to eat together,” said Dr. Joseph. “It’s a time to share interesting things about your day and eat without distractions. If we eat while watching TV, we are not paying attention to how much we eat.”
5. “Fresh food is best, and the earlier exposure the better,” said Dr. Mayo. “Avoid processed foods, which are usually lower in nutritional value and higher in fat and calories. I also think many parents don’t expose their children early enough to different foods. Doing so will help promote a varied palate and a healthy lifestyle.”