FIGHTING CHILDHOOD OBESITY 

Our body has a new enemy – and it is our appetites.  With fast foods proliferating and “eat all you can” restaurants thriving here and there, gluttony has become a way of life, instead of an exception.

This must be the reason why obesity – the condition of a person having excessive weight for his/her height, build, and age – is no longer identified as a problem in industrialized nations but in developing countries as well.

That includes the Philippines.  In fact, a few years back, the Philippines was ranked third as having the “fattest people” in Asia – after Malaysia and Singapore.  At that time, about 500,000 Filipinos were classified as obese.

That figure may not be startling at all but what is alarming is that some of these obese are still children.  A study conducted by the International Obesity Taskforce revealed that 1.8 percent of boys and 0.8 percent of girls between the ages of six and 10 in the country are overweight.

“The idea that big kids are healthy kids no longer hold true,” the late Senator Edgardo J. Angara, considered as the father of healthcare, once commented. “A big child used to be a sign of wealth and prosperity and was never seen as a bad thing.  Today, childhood obesity is being regarded as the newest form of malnutrition.”

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) reported that over 3 million Filipino children are obese.

“People who were obese as children are more likely to be obese as adults,” states “The Merck Manual of Medical Information,” “largely because when weight is gained during infancy and early childhood, new fat cells form.  People who become obese during childhood may have up to five times more fat cells than people who maintained a normal weight.”

“We’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic,” decries Dr. John Foreyt, one of the world-renowned authorities on obesity.  “We have to start in the young and develop healthy lifestyle habits, particularly in our dietary preferences, to prevent becoming obese…”

For most people, the condition of being overweight is easy to recognize.  But medically, a distinction is made between being overweight and being obese.  The body mass index (BMI) is used to define these conditions.  BMI is weight (in kilograms) divided by height (in meters squared).  Overweight is defined as a BMI of 25 to 29.9, and obesity is defined as a BMI of 30 or more.

“Body composition – the percentage of fat and muscle in the body – is also considered when obesity is defined,” says the Merck manual. “Women who have more than 30 percent body fat or men who have more than 25 percent body fat are considered obese.”

Obesity comes from the Latin word “obesitas,” which means “stout, fat, or plump.” During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, obesity was often seen as a sign of wealth, and was relatively common among the elite.

It was the Greeks who first recognized obesity as a medical disorder.  Hippocrates wrote: “Corpulence is not only a disease itself, but the harbinger of others.”  The Indian surgeon Sushruta (6th century BCE) related obesity to diabetes and heart disorders.

Throughout history, many cultures have viewed obesity as the result of a character flaw. The fat character in Greek comedy was a glutton and figure of mockery.  During Christian times food was viewed as a gateway to the sins of sloth and lust.  In modern Western culture, excess weight is often regarded as unattractive, and obesity is commonly associated with various negative stereotypes.

Today, obesity is now more of a life and death issue rather than just simply looking “bad.”  As Dr. Nick Finer, an American endocrinologist, puts it: “Obesity must be considered as an important medical issue.  A catalogue of diseases are caused and exacerbated by obesity.”

If you think being overweight doesn’t seem all that bad, try this: Carry around an 8-kilogram of sugar, a 12-kilogram water jug, or a 40-kilogram backpack – all day, every day, for the rest of your life.  See how your joints feel; check out your energy level. It’s not a great way to live.

Dave Barry once said: “I recently had my annual physical examination, which I get once every seven years, and when the nurse weighed me, I was shocked to discover how much stronger the Earth’s gravitational pull has become since 1990.”

There are several reasons why there’s a sudden surge of obese children in the Philippines.  “Inadequate physical activity, hormonal conditions and poor nutrition are often cited as the culprits for the rapid increase in obesity among children,” Sen. Angara noted.

In the past, children used to play outside their homes after classes and during holidays.  Those days were gone.  “We live in a in-the-car and behind-a-desk society,” Dr. Ong Wee Sian, a consultant sports physician at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Singapore, was quoted as saying.  “Children are spending more time watching television and playing computer games.”

“Reader’s Digest,” in an article, quoted a study conducted in the Philippines by the International Life Sciences Institute of Southeast Asia of 2,108 urban children aged eight to ten showed that “on average they spent 106 minutes a day watching TV, but only 30 to 37 minutes playing outdoor games.”

There is also the issue of hereditary.  If your father or mother or both parents are obese, there is a tendency that you will become obese, too.  “Obesity tends to run in families,” the Merck manual says.

Dr. Rosa Ally Sy, the overall chairman of the 6th Asia-Oceania Conference on Obesity, says genetic factors only contribute 25 percent of becoming obese.  Most likely, children become obese because of the choices of foods they eat.

“Obesity is not a result of lack of calories but excessive calories and poor nutrition,” Sen. Angara wrote.  This has also been the observation of Dr. Ricardo Fernando, a member of the Philippine Society of Hypertension.  He traced the current problem of obesity in the country to Filipinos’ passion for food, as illustrated by the popularity of “eat-all-you-can” diners.

“Everywhere you go, restaurants are offering such promos, probably taking advantage of the Filipinos’ excessive appetite,” Dr. Fernando observed.

Dr. Mia C. Fojas, of the Philippine Association for the Study of Overweight and Obesity, agrees.  “We are almost following the practices in Western countries where our local fast-food chains offer upsized food and drinks,” she said.

The lack of concerted action to address the disturbing levels of obesity among children in the country is another reason, according to Sen. Angara.  “If left unchecked, the current generation of children will have a shorter life span than their parents because they are at greater risk of contracting a myriad of diseases,” he wrote.

According to Philippine Obesity Control Surgery Team, obese people are in a much higher risk to develop type 2 diabetes (which is a result of a high blood sugar level).  Also, obesity can triple the risk of heart disease. One-third of all deaths globally — about 17 million — are blamed on heart disease, stroke and related cardiovascular problems.

“Certain cancers – of the breast, uterus, and ovaries in women and of the colon, rectum, and prostate in men – are more common among people who are obese than among those who are not,” the Merck manual reminds. “Menstrual disorders, osteoarthritis, gout, and gallbladder disease are also more common.”

Lack of sleep used to be seen as a disorder brought about by stress and environmental factors, but the recent studies have shown that sleeping disorders like sleep apnea can also be caused by obesity.  Sleep deprivation can lead one person to have a low energy level which deters them from doing physical activities during the day and ultimately gain more weight. This cycle traps an obese person even more.

“I believe that proper information and education are the most important steps in prevent obesity in children,” Sen. Angara wrote.