September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. According to the CDC, in 2015-2016, more than 13.7 million children and adolescents in the United States were obese. Let’s take a moment to learn about the causes of this condition and its impacts.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity occurs when a child is well above the healthy weight for their age and height. The causes of weight gain are similar to adults, ranging from genetics, behavior, and their surrounding community (CDC).
High-calorie diets, low-nutrient foods and beverages, poor exercise and sleep routines, and even some medications are all contributors to childhood obesity.
However, it is more complex than just diet and exercise. Certain communities are significantly more affected by this condition than others.
Health Disparities Related to Childhood Obesity
A disproportionate percentage of racial/ethnic minority children are obese. Current research suggests that the disparities in childhood obesity associated with race/ethnicity are largely tied to socioeconomic status (SES). Low SES children are twice as more likely to experience obesity than high SES children (APA); connecting to this, racial/ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the lower SES groups in the United States.
Family factors often influence childhood obesity disparities. For example, parents’ BMI is often predictive of children’s BMI, as children are often models of their parent’s habits. This is particularly concerning for racial/ethnic communities whose adults tend to have higher BMIs.
Research also shows that community/environmental factors contribute to childhood obesity. It is well known that racial/ethnic minorities are more likely to live in neighborhoods with limited options and resources, for example, grocery stores with affordable fruits and vegetables. Physical activity can also be limited by a lack of parks, for example.
There’s also psychological factors that come into play. Research has shown a connection between obesity and anxiety/depression in youth. For racial/ethnic minority youth who experience a disproportionate amount of stressors (for example, discrimination), this can be particularly concerning.
Consequences of Childhood Obesity
Children who have obesity are more likely to have:
High blood pressure and high cholesterol (high risk for Cardiovascular disease)
Increased risk for Type 2 Diabetes
Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea.
Fatty liver disease, gallstones, and gastro-esophageal reflux (heartburn)
Anxiety and depression.
Social problems such as bullying and stigma.
Children who have obesity are more likely to become adults with obesity, which can further be associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
For these reasons, it’s important that we understand the causes of childhood obesity, as well as the disparities present.