Obesity rates in the United States are still rising – as of 2014, over 30% of adults were obese, and the curve continues to climb.
If the trend of the past 25 years continued uninhibited, nearly all Americans would be obese by the year 2060.
Yes, that outcome is a bit unreasonable – there are a number of other factors that prevent our (or any) culture from actually reaching a 100% obesity point. The fact remains however, that our trajectory puts us close to there within the life expectancy of someone 20 years old today. And that brings up a related point – life expectancy. Specifically the life expectancy of that very group, 20 and under.
According to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health, the next generation’s forecasted obesity levels will cause such a degree of weight related illnesses and early deaths that the average lifespan will actually decrease – for the first time ever in American history.
Obesity Identification Isn’t Intuitive
Think its baby fat and they’ll grow out of it? Maybe they’re just a little on the larger side – but certainly not overweight!
You could be right – but it could also be time to take a closer look. Studies have shown that parents have a significantly harder time judging whether or not their children are physically healthy and fit.
This is to a degree natural in parents – and also can be due to unrealistic impressions of what a healthy weight should look like. Childhood obesity has tripled since 1980. Adult obesity has more than doubled. Statistically, 2 out of 3 adults and 1 out of 3 children are overweight. This means that if you’re looking at your child’s friends for comparison, you’re probably not getting a fair assessment.
If you’re not sure, there are a variety of ways to try and gauge whether your child is a healthy. The surest and best way however, is a visit to your pediatrician for a proper assessment. Your child’s BMI (body mass index) should vary quite a bit depending on age and gender, and your pediatrician will be able to determine whether they actually need to shed a few pounds or not.
Real and Present Danger
Childhood weight problems come with a laundry list of potential dangers and risks, both physical and emotional.
In cases where weight is an obvious problem, emotional and psychological issues are often the first to arise. Children are prone to treating one another poorly as they search for a grasp on their social boundaries – and an overweight child is likely to be a prime target for bullying, shaming and other kinds of hurtful actions.
Being continually mistreated by peers because of weight can produce a number of social phobias, emotional problems and even eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia.
Fortunately, an attentive parent catching situations quickly and early can provide the emotional support to help prevent serious social or mental problems from developing.
Physical problems unfortunately, are far more difficult to resolve once they surface. Childhood obesity can lead to a number of life threatening conditions – just as it does in adults. Some of the more common health risks include:
- High Blood Pressure
- Heart Disease
- Sleeping Problems
- Liver Disease
- Early Puberty
- Skin Infections, and more
Children who are overweight or obese are also significantly more likely to remain overweight or obese into adulthood. Thus all of the risks (and more) carry over into their entire adult lives.
One particularly alarming result of this pattern is an average life expectancy reduced by 5 years. With 1 in 3 children affected, this generation is set to become the first in 200 years to have shorter average lifespans than their parents.
The Age of Change
If you’re 35 or older, chances are you’ve begun to notice the ways age affects your body.
Your metabolism is slowing down, your digestive system doesn’t bounce back from questionable diet choices like it used to… Even if you’re taking excellent care of yourself, aches and pains can develop.
Maintaining a set fitness level also becomes harder to do as we age. This happens for a variety of reasons including hormonal changes, decreased energy levels and injuries or painful conditions that prevent activities we used to enjoy.
This takes place as you age, even if you’ve established healthy habits.
It should come as no surprise then, that there is no better time in life to lose excess weight and get healthy than youth.
Children are still in a state of rapid growth and high metabolism. Their bodies rebound incredibly fast, and they can change their habits even faster.
Children also have the added advantage of parental supervision and guidance. As a parent, you get to control whether or not your child has easy access to foods they shouldn’t – like sugary drinks, candies and other junk foods.
If there was ever and ideal age to lose weight, start exercising and build healthy habits – this is it. And the numbers above should serve as a very clear sign that the time to get started is now.
Plans of Action
If you’re a parent wondering what you can do to prevent your child from becoming a statistic, here are some quick pointers:
- Get rid of juices and sugary beverages. Think bringing home gallons of fruit juice is a healthy choice? Not so much – a glass of juice can go down in seconds without any satisfaction, while the equivalent amount of fruit would serve as a complete meal. Plus many juices have lots of added sugars, making them no healthier than soda pop.
- Promote exercise. If you’re over 30 to 40, you might remember all of the running around you did as a child. Today however, kids spend much of their time glued to the TV or internet. Children need exercise, just like adults do! Find fun activities and make sure they spend some time exercising every day.
- Set mealtime rules. Just as we teach the adults in our fitness programs, eating at specific times and in specific places trains the body, keeps you in control and limits daily intake. The same applies for children. Make sure they’re building healthy eating habits early that they can carry into adulthood.
- Talk to a nutritionist. If you’re concerned that your child might not be eating enough to sustain their growth, consult with an expert. A skilled dietitian can provide you with needed calories per day, balanced meal ideas, and all the confidence you need to implement them!
- Make it a family effort. The number one reason children fail to stick to healthy eating habits is a lack of family support. No one likes to be singled out. If your child is eating whole grain bran muffins while the rest of the family happily pigs out on cookies, you’re doing it wrong.
Beyond Your Home
While everything I’ve discussed so far is intended to shed light on what you as an individual can do to in your own family to help improve the health and quality of life for the next generation, there are bigger problems at work here as well.
Poverty takes a significant toll on children and their health in a variety of ways.
A lack of open area in which to safely run around and play carries significantly increased risk of unhealthy weight gain. A UK study has shown that children without regular access to a yard or other green outdoor space in which to play are 40% more likely to be overweight or obese by age 7.
Additionally, a condition called “food insecurity” exists within many low or no-income groups. This term essentially refers to having a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.
Healthy foods are almost always more expensive than highly processed and unhealthy alternatives – and often individuals with limited means are forced to buy whatever they can find wherever is nearest to them, rather than commuting to a larger grocery store with better selections. Research has shown that obesity risks can be nearly double in “food insecure” households.
The Bottom Line
In some cases like the economic factors discussed above, solutions are difficult to nail down. In others however, the answer is much simpler.
If you’re a parent and concerned about your child’s quality of life as they grow up, consult your pediatrician. Find out from an objective and knowledgeable observer if there is need for concern.
Then, work to improve the quality and quantity of food your family consumes. Ensure that your child eats plenty of fruits and vegetables every day. Set rules and guidelines for mealtimes and snacks. Avoid highly processed or sweetened foods in favor of more natural alternatives.
And if you do nothing else, at least remove sodas, sugary drinks and juices entirely from your family’s diet. This is especially important, as drinking sugary beverages regularly has been proven to increase cases of Type 2 Diabetes regardless of weight.
If we step up to the challenge now, we may yet prevent our children from becoming statistics.
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