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The Effects of Childhood Obesity

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Introduction

Childhood obesity has become a disturbing national epidemic and has grown considerably in the past two decades. The percentage of children and adolescents who are defined as overweight has more than doubled since the early 1970s. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 15 percent of children and adolescents are now overweight. Ironically, obesity is among the easiest medical conditions to recognize but most difficult to treat. Overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults unless they adopt and maintain healthier patterns of eating and exercise. In fact, 30% of adult obesity begins in childhood. Obesity accounts for more than 300,000 deaths a year and the annual cost to society for obesity is estimated at nearly $100 billion.

What is Obesity?

Obesity is defined as an excessively high amount of body fat in relation to lean body mass. Overweight refers to increased body weight in relation to height, when compared to some standard of acceptable or desirable weight. BMI or Body Mass Index is one important way of deriving desirable weight standards. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BMI uses a mathematical formula, in which a person's weight in pounds is divided by the square of the person's height in inches and this result is then multiplied by 703.

For example, a 13 year old boy who weighs 190 lbs. and is 5'5'' tall would have a

BMI = [190/(65)(65)] x 703 = 31.6.

A BMI of 31.6 would then be plotted on a BMI-for-age and gender specific growth chart (see www.cdc.gov/growthcharts). As of August 2003, the American Academy of Pediatrics has adopted its first policy dealing with the identification and prevention of childhood obesity by urging pediatricians to check BMI yearly. In children and teens, body mass index is used to assess underweight, overweight, and risk for overweight. BMI between 85th and 95th percentile for age and sex is considered at risk of overweight, and BMI at or above the 95th percentile is considered overweight or obese.

What causes Obesity?

Genetics, nutrition, physical activity and family factors all contribute to obesity in children and adolescents. If one parent is obese, there is a 50 percent chance that a child will also be obese. However, when both parents are obese, a child has an 80 percent chance of being obese. Although the genetic influences are significant, it is important to recognize that poor eating habits and overeating, lack of exercise, and family eating patterns and pressures also contribute to the inability to maintain a healthy weight.

What are the Health Effects?

Overweight children, as compared to children with a healthy weight, are more likely to develop many health problems such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which are associated with heart disease in adults. Type 2 diabetes, previously considered an adult disease, has increased dramatically in overweight children and adolescents. Children at a healthy weight are free of these weight-related diseases and less at risk of developing these diseases in adulthood.

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