Increase in obesity among children causes concern

Subhasini Naicker Wednesday 17th April 2024 06:35 EDT

Childhood obesity is a pressing public health concern that has garnered increasing attention in recent years, not only in the United Kingdom but also globally. 

A recent study reveals that nearly one in four children aged 10 and 11 in England are obese. Experts warn that this finding underscores the profound and alarming long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

An analysis involving over 1 million children shows that obesity rates surged by 45% among four-to-five-year-olds and by 21% among 10-to-11-year-olds in the first year of lockdowns.

NHS England’s national clinical director for children and young people said the figures were alarming and represented a “ticking health timebomb”.

Researchers from the National Institute for Health and Care Research Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and the University of Southampton warn that the surge in children becoming overweight and obese during the pandemic could result in at least 56,000 more children growing up at heightened risk of type-2 diabetes, cancer, and other serious illnesses.

Published in the journal PLOS One, their study additionally estimates that the sharp increase would lead to more than £8 billion in additional spending on healthcare and have a significant impact on the economy.

Asian Voice has spoken to a few experts in the field of child obesity highlighting it as a health challenge in the UK, obesity heightens the risk of other diseases and much more. 

Multifaceted challenges and collaborative solutions

Clinical lead for Diabetes and Obesity services at Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Renuka Dias said, “Childhood obesity remains a significant public health challenge in the UK, with factors contributing to its rise being multifaceted. While the equation of calories in versus calories out is often oversimplified, the link between obesity and poverty is unmistakable. High rates of obesity are particularly prevalent in areas of socioeconomic vulnerability, where factors such as the rising cost of living and easy access to cheap, calorie-dense foods intersect with caregivers' need to work long hours outside the home.”

Speaking about obesity issues among South Asians, Renuka said, “South Asians have a lower BMI threshold for obesity, increasing their risk of conditions like type-2 diabetes. BMI may not accurately reflect excess weight in non-white populations, making waist circumference or waist-hip ratio better measures. South Asians even as children also have different fat distributions, particularly around visceral fat, impacting their risk of complications. Adjusting weight-for-height ratios and providing education on increased risk could improve preventive efforts.”

Talking about the partnerships between government, healthcare, schools, and community organisations to combat childhood obesity, she said, “The underlying theme focuses on reducing inequality by supporting families in poverty and enhancing access to sports, food, and education across agencies. This approach goes beyond the simplistic "move more and eat less" message, recognising that children grow and develop differently from adults. For families facing challenges like heating their homes or paying rent, suggesting they provide fresh produce and attend sports sessions can be unfair and shaming. These recommendations require additional resources of both money and time, which are often considered privileges.”

Speaking about strategies or interventions that are effective to address child obesity, Chief Executive of Reverse The Trend, Cait Hall said, “Despite abundant health information, the global obesity epidemic persists, with over 1 billion affected individuals. Government interventions, including promoting healthy eating and physical activity, have fallen short, evidenced by increasing obesity rates. Traditional approaches rely on willpower, which is finite and easily depleted, hindering long-term success.”

“Addressing childhood obesity requires tapping into different brain mechanisms to initiate and sustain healthy habits. Instead of relying solely on willpower, focus on fostering sustainable behaviour change by engaging other areas of the brain responsible for habit formation and decision-making, “she added. 

Role of ethnicity and concerns of childhood obesity

Talking about ethnicity's role in obesity, Professor of Neonatal Medicine and Vice Dean (International) Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, Neena Modi said, “Ethnicity pertains to cultural background, while race refers to genetic ancestry. A child's susceptibility to obesity is often linked to ethnicity, while susceptibility to certain diseases is linked to race. However, being overweight or obese increases the risk of various diseases, regardless of genetic factors. Being healthy requires both fitness and a healthy weight. It's possible to be fit yet overweight, or unfit yet not overweight, but the ideal is to be both fit and a healthy weight. Obstacles such as low self-esteem and social stigmatisation can arise from poor health and obesity.”

“South Asians face heightened risks for conditions like diabetes, kidney problems, and high blood pressure. However, everyone has risks, and it's essential to minimise their impact. For children, preventing overweight and obesity is crucial, as they are challenging to reverse once established. Additionally, children need to stay fit by being active and engaging in sports,” she added.

Speaking about why child obesity is a big deal, Clinical lead at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, Senthil Senniappan said, “Nationally, nearly one in four children aged between 10 and 11 is now classified as living with obesity. The average weight of a child that needs to come to our clinic is around 125kg. 

Childhood obesity is deeply concerning, not only for its immediate health impacts but also for its long-term consequences. Beyond physical health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure, overweight children often face social challenges, including bullying and depression, which can hinder their educational attainment and overall well-being. They face a lot of stigma. I have seen how much it affects them. This stigma often stops them from coming and getting the help they need. But obesity should not define somebody. It’s a condition. For these children, the way we talk about it is a big deal,” he added.

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