The Physical Consequences of Childhood Obesity

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Being overweight is far more than just an appearance-related concern for children. It can have head-to-toe repercussions on a child’s physical health, in both the short-term and the long run. That’s because obesity affects just about every organ system in the body—it’s true for adults and it’s true for kids, too. Plus, children and teenagers who are obese are more likely to grow up to be obese adults, which means they’ll have more years of carrying excess body weight, which can cause further physical harm. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Short-Term Physical Consequences 

In a recent study, involving more than 43,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17, researchers from the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities found links between kids’ obesity and 19 indicators of overall health, including chronic conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, depression, allergies, asthma, headaches, and ear infections. Obese kids also had more physical activity restrictions and missed school days.

In addition, kids who are obese have increased risks of developing sleep apnea (a chronic disorder in which the sleeping person repeatedly stops breathing for 10 seconds or longer throughout the night) and asthma. Simply put, the extra weight on a child’s body can cause problems with the development and function of his or her lungs and upper airways, making it harder to breathe easily.

Obese kids also have a greater risk of developing bone, joint, and growth plate problems. In fact, research has found an association between childhood obesity and musculoskeletal pain (such as back pain, hip and knee pain, and foot pain). This kind of chronic or recurring pain may reduce a child’s levels of physical functioning and physical activity, which could potentially set him or her up for further weight gain. It’s a double negative, indeed!

Obesity in children can also take a toll on their organs. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease—a disorder that can lead to liver damage and scarring—is a risk for children whose body mass index (BMI) is in the obese range. In fact, a recent study from the U.K. found that kids who have the greatest changes in their weight-to-height ratio between the ages of one and ten have a higher risk of developing liver problems during adolescence. Obese kids are also more likely to menstruate or go through puberty at a younger age before they’re psychologically and emotionally ready for those changes. 

The Long Reach of Adverse Effects

The physical ripple effects of obesity continue as kids continue to grow and develop. Type 2 diabetes has become a very real (and insidious) risk among obese kids, particularly as they go through puberty. Obese kids also have increased risks of developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Indeed, approximately 70 percent of obese kids have at least one risk factor for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If kids continue to be overweight into their adult years, their risks of developing a stroke, various types of cancer (including breast, colon, kidney, prostate, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma), and osteoarthritis also increase. And, of course, the extra weight may affect how well they function physically, thereby compromising their quality of life.

These are just some of the reasons why, for the first time in human history, children in the U.S. could have a shorter lifespan than their parents do. That’s not how it should be, especially in the age of modern medicine and better nutritional know-how. Consider these physical consequences added incentives to reduce the rate of childhood obesity—and to help your beloved children, in particular, maintain a healthy weight. After all, it’s easier to take steps to prevent a child from becoming obese than it is to reverse a significant weight problem.

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