THINK ON THESE | Childhood obesity: The weight is over

When I was in the United States some years back, I was surprised that most Americans who ate in buffet restaurants (where they call it, “all you can eat” in contrast to our “eat all you can”) were overweight.

When I returned to the Philippines, I had observed that there were also Filipinos who were just like them. I had not seen such a phenomenon when I was growing up in the rural areas. Can we blame the proliferation of street foods and fast-food restaurants?

When a person is overweight or obese, he or she has a price to pay. Data released by the Philippine General Hospital nine years ago said that an average of 200 Filipinos die annually from obesity.

The toll may have gone up already as obesity is now becoming a big – figuratively and literally – problem, health-wise.

“We have an obesity epidemic here in the Philippines,” then Department of Health officer-in-charge Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a media forum in March 2023.

Obesity generally starts from childhood. A National Health Survey conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) in 2013 found 5% of obese children were five years old and younger.

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.

“Childhood obesity is a condition where excess body fat negatively affects a child’s health or well-being,” Wikipedia states. “Due to the rising prevalence of obesity in children and its many adverse health effects, it is being recognized as a serious public health concern.”

There are several causes of obesity among children. For one, if a baby is born bigger, there is a tendency that he will be obese when he or she grows up. Most parents consider babies who are a little bit heavier as cute. So much so that they feed the child more.

If someone comments about the size of the child, parents usually respond, “That’s alright. He’s still a kid; he will surely become thinner when he becomes a teenager. But sad to say, it won’t happen. “More often than not, an obese child will grow up into an obese adult,” Dr. Berith Bermejo explains.

Another reason that children these days will have a heavier future is because of the proliferation of fast foods. Wherever you go, you can buy those instant meals which are cooked in oil saturated with trans fats. Together with these meals are sodas and drinks loaded with sugar.

More often than not, these children have limited access to nutritious food. “Many children lack access to fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains due to unaffordability and urbanization,” wrote Dr. Norman Banayat in an article published in Enrich Magazine.

Lack of sleep is another cause. Most children these days don’t sleep much as they are playing with their gadgets. Even while their parents are sleeping, children are still playing games, chatting with friends, and/or watching television shows. But the worst thing: eating junk foods while doing those activities.

Physical inactivity contributes to why children are becoming obese. Unlike in the past, children don’t play basketball or any outdoor games. They are confined in the four corners of their rooms – again doing something with their gadgets.

Stress is another culprit. Stressful moments include missing their classes, not allowed to go out with their friends, or experiencing break-ups. All these may result in stress eating, where choices of foods are not usually nutritionally good.

In his article, Dr. Banayat shares some solutions to address childhood obesity. These are:

Build healthy eating habits: “Nutrition education helps children develop a solid foundation of healthy eating habits. Teach them about the importance of balanced meals, portion control, and the inclusion of nutrient-rich food.”

Promote physical activity: “Encouraging regular physical activity is an essential approach to managing childhood obesity as it helps children maintain a healthy weight, reduces the likelihood of obesity-related health problems, and enhances overall well-being.”

Breastfeeding: “(This) plays a significant role in curbing childhood obesity due to its numerous health benefits, including its inverse association with the risk of early obesity in children aged two to six years.”

Policy interventions: “Implementing food and beverage regulations, coupled with front-of-pack nutrition labeling, is a powerful strategy to curb childhood obesity. By enacting comprehensive regulations on the marketing, availability, and nutritional content of food and beverages targeted at children, the country can create an environment that promotes healthier eating choices.”

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.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) says obesity is a major risk factor for various noncommunicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and stroke, and various forms of cancer.

“Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people drying each year as a result of being overweight or obese,” the WHO says. “Once associated with high-income countries, obesity is now also prevalent in low- and middle-income countries.”

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