In the Era of Health Reform, Child Obesity Is as Bad as Ever

12/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As Congress continues to fine-tune its health care plan, the cost of the obesity epidemic, in terms of both human life and dollars, is becoming more evident and severe. The doubling of the obesity rate between 1987 and today accounts for nearly thirty percent of the rise in health care spending seen in recent years. Obesity related spending averages $1400 more per year for an obese person than for a normal-weight individual. And overall obesity-related health care spending has reached 147 billion dollars per year, according to an article published by the Journal of Health Affairs in July 2009. It is clear that the obesity epidemic is more than a social issue; it is a medical crisis.

It is not only adults who are affected. The number of overweight children and teens has continued to rise in the past two decades. According to the Center for Disease Control, this generation will be the first generation to die younger than its parents. Many parents are rightly concerned about their children's health. Taking early action is vital.

Being overweight may lead to several health problems such as: heart disease, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, social judgment and psychosocial risks, gall-bladder disease, osteoarthritis, metabolic syndrome, early puberty, gastro-intestinal diseases, gout, liver disease.

In the last two decades, doctors have been finding cases of what used to be "adult" diseases in overweight teenagers and children as young as age 6.

Type II Diabetes used to be called "Adult Onset" Diabetes. The name has recently changed to Type II diabetes due to the large number of children developing what used to be an exclusively adult problem. Being overweight is the single strongest risk factor for Type 2 Diabetes. An adult diagnosed with Type II Diabetes may require kidney dialysis or have a heart attack in their 60s or 70s whereas a teen diagnosed with Type II Diabetes may develop these problems in their 30s or 40s.

New research indicates that childhood obesity itself may shorten one's life span, even if that person is not obese as an adult. It is imperative to recognize and treat childhood overweight as soon as possible in order to maximize life span.

Abnormal changes in the heart (i.e. clogging of the arteries) have been documented in healthy children as young as age 5. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that obese children do become obese adults. 75% of children who are overweight between the ages of 12 and 18 remain obese as adults. And half of overweight children age 6-11 become obese adults. Further, if a child is overweight before age 8, he/she is more likely to be severely obese as an adult.

Weight loss can reverse many of the health risks of being overweight. Weight reduction can also increase self-esteem and reduce stress and anxiety. It is very important to work with a physician when placing any child on a weight loss plan. It is not safe for a child to be on a diet unless medically supervised. Studies have shown that if not monitored closely, a child's growth can be affected. A physician must be watching every step of the way to ensure that the child's height and growth is continuing at a normal rate. A pediatric specialist is also important because unlike adults, children have different nutritional and caloric needs at each stage of development. Child weight loss programs cannot be "one size fits all". They must be continually modified. Other studies have shown that do-it-yourself plans tend to backfire and cause weight gain. If a child is going to lose weight, he/she must do it safely.

It is easier to lose weight and sustain weight loss in children before they enter puberty. During puberty, hormonal changes cause weight gain and make weight loss more difficult. There are also changes in the brain areas that control appetite. Most important, the body's weight "set point" is determined at puberty- making significant weight loss (or gain) much more difficult. Once a person's set point is determined, if that person loses weight, the body responds by lowering resting metabolism and increasing hunger. It is preparing itself for starvation and will do anything it can to regain those lost pounds. This is why most people who lose weight wind up gaining it back. Before the set point is determined, these responses do not happen. A child can lose weight without inciting this "starvation" response.

Parents should act as soon as possible, while they have the best chance of making an impact. Parents have more influence on the behavior of younger children than older children and dietary habits in elementary school children are less firmly set. There is also more opportunity for physical activity during the younger years. By the time children become teenagers, they are often resistant to family centered treatment.

Here are some things parents can do to be positive role models and keep kids healthy:

  • Make it a whole family effort: Healthy eating habits should be learned by all members of the family, even if they are thin.

  • Take action early on; start with prevention. It is easier to maintain a healthy weight than it is to lose weight.
  • Be realistic; do not expect dramatic results overnight.
  • The goal is to reduce the rate of weight gain while allowing normal growth and development.
  • Encourage healthy eating habits.
  • Remove calorie-rich temptations from the house.
  • Look for ways to make favorite dishes healthier.
  • Avoid the "clean plate" theory.
  • Help kids stay active and reduce the amount of sedentary time.
  • During your child's yearly physical ask for a complete medical exam from your doctor including blood work of cholesterol (if this not already completed) to assess any medical risks. Ask your doctor if your child is considered overweight or obese and make healthy changes right away.