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Childhood obesity is a condition of extreme overweight in children and adolescents. Being overweight, consisting mainly of body fat, can lead to health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, sometimes already at an early age. Children may also develop psychological problems, like depression and anxiety, which further reduces their quality of life. Obesity has significant economic consequences, including high health care costs for both the individual and the society. It is important to understand the causes of weight gain, and to learn how to best prevent and treat it.
2. How many children are overweight or obese?
The World Health Organization estimates that the number of obese Europeans has more than tripled since the 1980s, and that around 1 in 3 children aged 6 9 years old are overweight or obese.1
There are large country differences, with the south of Europe having the highest number of overweight children. The statistics also show that the increase in childhood obesity rates has slowed down in developed countries, but not in low and middle income countries, where more children are getting ‚extremely obese‘ (see the weight categories in question 5).1 Monitoring the prevalence and trends of childhood obesity is important to see if prevention and intervention programmes have an effect.
3. How do children become obese?
Becoming overweight is the result of a combination of several factors that contribute to an energy imbalance over a longer period of time. The below (non exhaustive) list includes factors that may increase or decrease the risk.
4. What are the health consequences of childhood obesity?
Obesity in children is strongly linked to health problems, at present, and later in life. Being overweight is likely to be carried over into adulthood, and increases the risk for a variety of physical health problems, including: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems including joint and muscle pain, reduced mobility and balance, obstructive sleep apnoea, asthma, and early entry into puberty.
Stigmatisation, discrimination, and bullying are psychosocial consequences of childhood obesity. This can lead to a low self esteem, social isolation, low performance at school and a general low mood, such as depression, self blame, shame and helplessness.
The financial consequences of childhood obesity and associated diseases are significant. It has been estimated that in the European Union, every year about 7% of the national health budget is spent on the obesity linked diseases.2 As the number of obese individuals is likely to increase, so will the costs for the prevention and treatment.
5. How is obesity in children measured?
Assessing obesity in children is different and more complex than in adults, because children grow and develop at different paces at different ages. To assess a child’s weight category, his/her body mass index (BMI) is compared with the ‚BMI for age‘ chart (Figure 1). The charts reflect the natural growth patterns of children, and may have small country differences.
Figure 1: The World Health Organisation (WHO) BMI chart for boys and girls aged 5 to 19 years old. The numbers of the coloured lines indicate the weight categories: below 3 is ’severe thinness‘, between 3 and 2 is ‚thinness‘, between 1 and 1 is ’normal weight‘, between 1 and 2 is ‚overweight‘, and higher than 2 is ‚obesity’3
6. Some by being role models, others by providing a supportive environment. Small, achievable, and realistic changes are recommended for long term success.
Pay attention to portion sizes use smaller plates.
Avoid using food to stimulate or reward good behaviour or to satisfy the emotional needs of children use stickers, play, or exercise as a reward (be creative!).
Encourage children to try new foods, so they learn to accept and appreciate a wide range of tastes. Rejection of novel or bitter foods is normal, especially in younger children, but multiple offerings will increase the acceptance.
Ensure the child gets enough sleep, between 9 to 14 hours is recommended, depending on the age.4
Encourage physical activity. According to WHO, a child should be physically active at least 60 minutes per day!5
Develop a supportive social environment for the child, such as family meals, no eating in front of the television, and regular (physical) activities.