Obesity and overweight children

We know that Australian children are growing overweight at a rapid rate-so much so that the number of overweight children has more than double in the last 20 years. In the schools physical activity and nutrition survey (SPANS) it was reported that 26% of boys and 24% of girls in NSW aged approximately 5-16 years were overweight or obese. 

The alarming fact is that a staggering majority of overweight children become overweight adults. Overweight children are at increased risk of:

  • High blood pressure  
  • Type II diabetes
  • Poor tolerance to exercise
  • Psychological problems
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Pancreatitis
  • Liver problems
  • Orthopaedic disorders ( problems with foot structures)
  • Respiratory disorders such as upper airway obstruction and chest wall restriction, resulting in sleep apnoea
  • Reflux, gallstones and other stomach conditions
  • Eating disorders such as bulimia 

In addition , obesity has a major impact on a child’s confidence and how they interact with others. Obese adolescents are more likely to have low self-esteem, which may impact on other aspects of their lives, such as the development of friendship and competency  at school.

Just like adults, children store fat when the energy consumed from food and drink is greater than the energy used as fuel for daily activities, exercise, digesting food and resting metabolism ( the energy balance scale are tipping the wrong way). If these imbalances are repeated over a long period of time, it can result in a child becoming overweight or obese.

What is making our kids overweight?

Most people would say that todays children are not moving enough and eating too much energy-dense food. The increase in sedentary behaviour and a greater consumption of foods high in fat and sugar, together with a fall in physical activity, are considered responsible.

While children may not be moving as much as they did in past generations, interestingly surveys found that there has been a recent increase in the proportion of children who fulfil the exercise requirements of the Australian physical activity recommendations for children and young people. This requirement is one hour per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Nevertheless, the level of sedentary behaviour for children is too high.

In addition, children’s consumption of energy-dense foods has risen greatly in particular:

  • Cakes, chips and biscuits 
  • Soft drinks
  • Confectionary and sugar products
  • Fast foods

The Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity survey reported that sugar contributed to between 23-24% of total energy intake. The dietary guidelines recommended a diet  moderate in sugar that should not contribute more than 20% of overall energy intake. The survey also found that saturated fat intake contributed to approximately 13-14% of children’s energy intake. The dietary guidelines recommended that saturated fat should contribute less than 10% total energy intake.

While there was an over-consumption of sugar and saturated fat, there was a low level of fruit and vegetable consumption, with only 22% of 4-8 year old children and only 5% of 14-16 year olds meeting the dietary guidelines for vegetable intake. The proportion of children meeting the guidelines decreased with age, meaning that the diet was poorer as the children got older. couple this with an increasing participation in screen-viewing activities with age and we could have the explanation for the fat teenager phenomenon.

Changes in our lifestyle have contributed to overweight and obesity. Here are some examples:

The overall cost of food has gone down (particularly with the emergence of cheap fast food)

  • More food is eaten away from home (fast food outlets)
  • Energy-dense foods and drinks are more readily available
  • Portion sizes of meals have increased (fast food)
  • Marketing of energy-dense foods and drinks has increased, and has been directed at children
  • The use of private transport has increased
  • The role of physical education in the school curriculum has reduced
  • The number of two income families has increased 
  • The time spent in paid employment has increased

The last two of course relate to the parents which suggest that less time is available for recreation/sport/playing time and food preparation.

Causes of obesity 

In addition to eating more kilojoules than are used, obesity may also be caused by the following factors:

  • Genetics or an abnormal endocrine gland – it is thought that genes may play a role in 25-40% of cases
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Spending a lot of time on sedentary pursuits – Australian children watch, on average, around 2.5 hours of television a day as well as spending time using computers and other electronic games. (excluding online learning)