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Childhood Obesity Causes + 7 Natural Solutions
Reviewed by Michelle Levitt, MD
February 18, 2019
Childhood obesity has become an epidemic. And, it has significantly impacted the physical and psychological health of our nation’s children. Research shows that overweight and obese children are more likely to stay obese into adulthood. They also have a much higher risk of developing diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease at a younger age. (1)
Experts at the World Health Organization estimate that there are 43 million overweight children who are under the age of 5. By 2020, more than 60 percent of diseases worldwide will be directly associated with obesity. (2)
The WHO also reported that it’s not uncommon to find under-nutrition and obesity existing side-by-side. But how does this make sense? If you’re consuming so many calories in one day, aren’t you eating enough foods that your getting the nutrients you need? The truth is that childhood obesity stems from the consumption of empty calories, which supply little or no nutritional value. So, children in our country are overfed and under-nourished.
For young people, to treat obesity naturally, it’s important to lead by example and display healthy behaviors to your children at home. By cooking at home more often, encouraging your child to engage in daily physical activity and serving as a support system, you can help your child to get healthy and establish a positive relationship with food.
Childhood Obesity Facts
Being overweight or obese is defined as having abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that causes a risk to your health. Excess body fat is usually measured by body mass index (BMI). BMI measures your weight in relation to your height. For children and adolescents, a normal BMI depends on the young person’s age and gender.
If a child’s BMI is between the 85th and 94th percentiles of the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) growth charts, the child is overweight. When BMI is at or above the 95th percentile, the child is obese. Although using the BMI chart is not always the most accurate way to indicate if a child is overweight, it’s difficult to measure body fat. So, using these growth charts is how doctors will typically make a childhood obesity diagnosis. (3, 4)
According to research published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, “childhood obesity can profoundly affect children’s physical health, social and emotional well-being, and self esteem. It is also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child.” (5) To give you an idea of how childhood obesity leads to health issues in adulthood, researchers at the CDC approximate that 1 in 3 children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in his or her lifetime. (6)
Many children today are consuming sufficient or even excessive food calories. But they still aren’t meeting the nutritional requirements put in place by the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Researchers indicate that children ages 5–18 years are consuming approximately 720 to 950 empty calories every day. (7) Although they are consuming so many calories in a day, young people are still falling short of the recommended consumption of fruits and vegetables. Instead, their calories come from added fats and sugars, which have little nutritional value.
Pediatrics published a 2018 study that provided an updated insight on childhood obesity rates according to race and additional clarification on the state of obesity in the U.S. The results revealed that White and Asian American children have notably lower rates of obesity than Hispanic, African American or children of other races.
Additionally, children aged 2 to 5 years old showed a distinct increase in general obesity from 2015 to 2016. There was a significant increase in severe obesity among the same age group since the 2013 to 2014 cycle report. Overall, this study showed a clear, increasing trend for obesity and weight among children aged 2–19 years, primarily among adolescents. This study also noted that despite previous reports of obesity in children and adolescents remaining stable or decreasing and public health initiatives, there was no evidence available to confirm that decline or stabilization. (8)
Here are some noteworthy childhood obesity facts that have been highlighted in a scientific review published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal (9):
- Childhood obesity is associated with an increased risk of premature death and disability in adulthood.
- Obese children often consume larger food portions, increased fat intake and fewer fruits and vegetables from an early age.
- Obese children spend less hours physically active than normal-weight children. And they spend more time watching TV, sitting at their computers or playing video games.
- A large number of children who are obese have obese parents.
- When food is used as a reward starting early in life, children tend to derive pleasure from it. This increases the risk of childhood obesity.
- For obese children, food tends to be a source of comfort.
- Many obese children lie about their food consumption and even hoard snack foods in their rooms.
- Obese children seem to eat more in the evening and at night, and less in the morning.
- These children seem to eat out of the home more often than normal-weight children.
- They also seem to have a preference for sweet foods like cookies, cake, ice cream and sweetened beverages.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
1. Portion Sizes
It might seem like an obvious statement, but it’s important to understand that portion size directly affects the amount of food consumed in one sitting. That means that you’re more likely to eat more food than you really need if the portion in front of you is bigger.
In the U.S., and many other countries today, there is a greater availability of large portions, coupled with value-size pricing. If you “supersize” your meal at a fast food joint, you are told that you’re saving money — basically, getting more for your buck. But you’re also consuming a lot more calories than your body needs, or can use, for energy. (10)
Research shows that the obesity rates have increased in parallel with increasing portion sizes. This goes for portion sizes of individually packaged foods, ready-to-eat prepared foods and meals served at restaurants.
A study conducted at Rutgers University compared the portions selected by young adults in 2006 to those selected 20 years earlier. Researchers found that typical portion sizes in the study tended to be significantly larger than those selected by young adults two decades ago. Portion distortion seems to play a role in this problem. Young adults are unaware of what appropriate portions look like. (11)
2. School Lunch
Are you letting the food industry feed your kids? If so, you may notice that the choices available to your kids at school aren’t exactly what you’d prefer for them to be eating during lunch. Yes, schools have to hit certain nutrition marks. But they are also allowed to use foods with artificial flavors and coloring, food additives, preservatives and emulsifiers.
The truth is that most of the foods available to your kids during school lunch are competitive foods and beverages, such as sweetened beverages, salty snacks like chips and sweets like candy, cookies and pastries. Kids commonly eat these foods instead of prepared school lunches because they are sold in nearby vending machines or snack stands. (12)
When your child does eat a prepared school lunch, he is hopefully being given a meal that meets the USDA’s strict guidelines under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. But, recently the new administration loosened the regulations, allowing for grains that aren’t 100 percent whole grain and more sodium in school meals.
3. Consumption of Sugary and Ultra-Processed Foods
One of the leading causes of obesity is the sugary and processed foods making up many children’s diets. Research shows that children today are eating more high-calorie, nutrient deficient foods and they are not consuming foods with vitamins, minerals and other healthy micronutrients. Eating sugary and processed snack foods that are low in micronutrients is directly associated with the rising prevalence of childhood obesity in the last decade. (13)
According to a 2011 study published in Pediatric Clinics, “14.6 percent of the total energy consumed by Americans aged 2 years and older comes from added sugars.” (14) Researchers agree that most of these added sugars are coming from sweetened beverages like soda and juices. A 2016 systematic analysis that involved over 20 studies found that the majority of studies support a positive association between sugar-sweetened beverages and the risk of obesity, especially among children. (15)
4. Absence of Healthy Fats
You may be surprised to learn that researchers have found that a diet rich in healthy fats is associated with a lower risk of developing obesity. For so many years, the public was told that fats cause weight gain. But recent studies indicate that the opposite is actually true, in the case of healthy fats.
The consumption of healthy fats has an inverse relationship with metabolic risk factors and obesity. This is because foods that contain healthy fats — like avocados, butter, wild-caught salmon, yogurt and coconut oil — are complex foods that provide many important nutrients, unlike sweetened or processed foods consumed by so many children today. (16)
5. Lack of Physical Activity
A large population of children and adolescents aren’t meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines. The recommendation is at least one hour of physical activity every day. According to the CDC, among high school students, only 11 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys say they are physically active for at least 60 minutes a day. Only 30 percent claim that they attend daily physical education classes at school. (17)
Data shows that young people who are more physically active have lower levels of body fat than those who are less active. However, instead of running around outside, getting involved in sports or engaging in other types of physical activity, children are choosing more sedentary activities involving sitting for long periods of time.
For example, they’re playing video games, using smartphones or watching TV. In fact, for some kids, these devices are becoming an addiction and they are being used for multiple hours a day. Nomophobia, defined as the fear of being without a mobile device, has lead to a smartphone addiction that involves children (and adults) checking their phones several times an hour, for example. Some young people are even tapping their screen awake every few minutes and using their phones when they should be sleeping or doing homework. (18)
Nomophobia, defined as the fear of being without a mobile device, has lead to a smart phone addiction…for example, is a smartphone addiction that involves children (and adults) checking their phones several times an hour. Some young people are even tapping their screen awake every few minutes and using their phones when they should be sleeping or doing homework.
6. Stress (On Children and Parents)
Children with obesity face psychological issues like stress, anxiety and even depression. Researchers show that many obese children experience separation anxiety when they are separated from their parents and they feel anxiety about their weight and food habits. Adolescents become stressed and anxious about their weight and resort to crash dieting, which leads to them eating even more.
Sometimes, obese children and adolescents can be bullied or ridiculed because of their weight, even by their friends and parents. This leads to even more feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and worthlessness. These feelings lead to children resorting to food for comfort and inevitably, even more weight gain. (19)
Stress on the parents can also contribute to childhood obesity, according to a 2012 study published in Pediatrics. Researchers found parent stressors were related to fast-food consumption.
This connection is an important indicator of childhood obesity. Stressful events or situations experienced by parents often result in negative physiologic and psychological responses. When dealing with these stressors, parents tend to spend less time with their children and use less effective parenting approaches, according to the study. This, in turn, leads to less supervision of children as they make unhealthy food and activity choices.
Parents under stress may find it difficult to shop for and prepare healthy meals throughout the week. And, data shows that they are less likely to serve fruits and vegetables in the home. Instead, stressed parents seem to rely on fast food and there’s an increased consumption of sugary and processed foods. (20)
7 Solutions for Childhood Obesity
1. Start with a Healthy Breakfast
Did you know that skipping breakfast can actually lead to weight gain? Studies indicate that regular breakfast consumption will reduce the risk of childhood obesity and improve a child’s physical activity behaviors.
Children need breakfast to fuel their bodies and give them energy throughout the day. Without a proper breakfast, children and adolescents will feel fatigued. They will be less likely to engage in physical activity that burns calories. Plus, when they do finally eat a full meal, they will be so hungry that they choose larger portions and consume more calories. (21)
Research also shows the positive benefits of breakfast programs that are in place at schools for low-income families. Providing children with a well-balanced breakfast improves their test scores and leads to better attendance. Breakfast programs also improve classroom attentiveness and behavior. (22)
A healthy breakfast contains protein, fiber, healthy fats and antioxidants. Avoid serving children foods that are processed and contain added sugars, like cereals marketed to children. Use some of these healthy breakfast recipes for ideas.
2. Pack School Lunches
To fight childhood obesity and even improve your child’s focus and test scores, opt for a brown bag lunch. A 2009 study published in Preventing Chronic Disease found that adolescents who usually brought their lunch from home 5 days per week “ate fast food on fewer occasions, consumed fewer servings of soda, fried potatoes and high-sugar foods, and ate more fruits and vegetables compared with adolescents who never brought their lunch to school.” (23)
Plan, shop for and prepare meals with your son or daughter. Let your child become part of the decision making. Allow her to choose her own healthy foods to incorporate into her school lunches. This will get her excited about eating healthy foods she already loves. She may be willing to try some new foods, too.
Looking for a few healthy packed lunch suggestions? Try an almond butter and banana sandwich on Ezekiel bread, egg salad wrapped in a sprouted grain tortilla or organic, nitrate-free lunch meat on brown rice or Ezekiel bread. For snacks, try an antioxidant trail mix, hummus with carrot sticks or guacamole with sliced bell peppers. I bet these fresh, homemade lunches will be much more satisfying for your child.
3. Get Involved at School
You stay on top of what your child is learning at school. You ask him what he learned that day, help him with his homework and communicate with his teacher about his progress. Doesn’t it make sense to ask your child about what he ate that day? What food was offered and did he like it? Did it make him feel energetic afterwards or groggy?
Your child spends a majority of his day at school, with his teachers and the school staff. At school, he is learning behaviors, including how and what to eat. If you’re practicing healthy eating at home, but processed foods are served every day at school, then your child receives mixed signals. Until healthy school lunches are the norm, you need to be an advocate for your child. Get involved at school and fight for healthy lunches.
Plus, school is a great place for your child to learn about healthy foods, what they can do for his body and mind, and why certain foods make you feel good while others make you feel lousy. Studies show that in the fight against childhood obesity, a multidisciplinary approach in schools that involves the children’s family, too, is the most feasible and effective approach. Teachers and parents are the best role models. Together, they can more easily guide the children to become healthier. (24)
4. Cook Meals at Home
Eating more meals away from home puts children at a greater risk of becoming obese. This is especially true if they are eating high-calorie fast or processed foods that parents turn to on busy days. Research shows that families spend about 40 percent of their food dollars on food away from home. At these establishments, often children are served portions that are too large and too high in calories. (25)
To help your child lose or maintain his weight, prepare most meals at home. Also, eat together as a family as often as possible. Cook meals for your family using high protein foods, healthy fats and anti-inflammatory foods like leafy green vegetables and fruits packed with antioxidants.
5. Limit TV Time
When your child is in front of the TV, he’s probably sitting or lying down, doing very little or no physical activity. Sometimes, parents let their children watch TV for hours without prompting them to go outside, run around, play a game or get creative. Not only does too much TV time mean too little exercise and too much time being sedentary, it also means that your child is being exposed to advertisements that are promoting the exact foods that are contributing to our childhood obesity epidemic.
A study conducted by the American Public Health Association found that across North and South America, Western Europe, Asia and Australia, children are exposed to high volumes of television advertising for unhealthy foods with little nutritional value and too many calories. Researchers found that among the food commercials, 54–87 percent were for unhealthy foods. Also, most of these commercials involved persuasive marketing techniques. For example, using popular promotional characters that appeal to children. (26)
6. Make Time for Physical Activity
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 17 should engage in at least 60 minutes of exercise every day. The CDC encourages young people to exercise regularly to decrease the likelihood of developing childhood obesity, reduce stress and anxiety levels, promote mental health, and build strong bones and muscles.
These benefits of exercise will boost your child’s self esteem and help him to reach his weight loss goals. Young people should spend one or more hours running around, playing sports and engaging in other types of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities every day. (27) Here are some great ways that your child can become more active:
- playing sports like soccer, basketball and tennis
- brisk walking
- bike riding
- practicing gymnastics
- practicing karate
- doing yoga
- doing push-ups and pull-ups
- climbing a tree
- playing on a jungle gym
7. Be Supportive and Show by Example
Obese children and adolescents experience stress and anxiety over their weight and how their parents, siblings and peers perceive them. Addressing the psychological issues related to obesity is just as important as changing a child’s diet. Never put your child down about his or her weight.
Instead, explain your concerns and present a game plan. If you plan to feed your child healthier foods and make time for physical activity, you should do it too!
Sit down to eat a healthy meal together. Shop for food and look through recipe books or blogs together. Engage in physical activity together by hiking, running, going to the beach and swimming or bike-riding. It’s also a good idea to practice daily stress relievers, like yoga and meditation.
If you are having trouble dealing with your child’s anxiety about his or her weight, seek the help of a professional. A services health coach or therapist can be extremely beneficial.
- Childhood obesity has become a worldwide epidemic and experts at the World Health Organization estimate that there are 43 million overweight children who are under the age of 5 and by 2020 more than 60 percent of diseases developed worldwide will be directly associated with obesity..
- There are many causes of childhood obesity. These include large portion sizes, unhealthy school lunches, consumption of sugary and processed foods, the absence of healthy fats, a lack of physical activity and stress on both children and parents.
- Luckily, there are natural solutions for fighting childhood obesity. Cooking and preparing meals at home are the best ways to treat childhood obesity. It’s extremely important to encourage physical exercise, get involved at school and serve as a support system for your child.