At School in Laos

Explosive Global Growth in Childhood Obesity – So What?

“It’s a shockingly fast increase. It’s hard to think of any development indicator where you see such a rapid deterioration.” So says UNICEF’s Laurence Chandy. He is the lead author of a new report on Children, Food, and Nutrition. That report documents how we have seen a doubling in global childhood obesity and overweight between 2000 and 2016. And yet, other forms of malnutrition are still going strong.

Globally, 8.2 million children suffer from both stunting and wasting. Undernutrition remains a problem for children in Africa, but obesity is now growing rapidly there, too.

But we have to ask, so what? The constant drumbeat of panic about childhood obesity isn’t helpful if it doesn’t come with action to help the children affected.

Identifying Children at Risk

A new study in the International Journal of Obesity tells us that it isn’t hard to identify the children at highest risk. Markus Juonala and colleagues found that three factors serve quite well to identify young children who are likely to have persistent obesity as teens. Those three factors are a high BMI in early childhood, a mother with a high BMI, and a mother with limited education. Among teens with none of those risk factors, only 13 percent had overweight or obesity. With all three of them, 71 percent did.

In other words, it’s not hard to figure out who’s at risk. The hard part is doing something about it. And for the last three decades, what we’ve been doing has been largely ineffective.

Demanding Action

Environmental Obesity DriversIt’s pretty clear that shifts in our environment are triggering ever more obesity in children and their parents. A big part of it is changes in the food supply. But other factors are driving it too. Stress and distress. A physical and technology environment that takes routine physical activity out of our lives. Drugs and chemicals that disrupt our endocrine systems. It’s not just one of these factors. All of them are acting in synergy.

We must demand action to reverse these trends. It’s not enough to simply vilify the food industry and let it go at that. Yes, that industry must do better. But a better food supply alone will not solve this problem. We must address all of the drivers. And we must demand evidence for solutions that actually have an effect. Wishful thinking and good intentions are not enough.

Urgent Needs of the Children Affected

Working on the drivers of childhood obesity is important, but it’s not good enough. Many millions of children already have severe obesity. But we are doing next to nothing to meet their medical needs. For more than five million kids with severe obesity in the U.S., we have fewer than 40 centers with stage 4 programs to provide adequate care.

Why? Because health plans can get away without covering care until the complications of diabetes, heart diseases, liver disease, and a host of other complications show up. That is a genuine scandal.

So yes, the explosive growth in global childhood obesity is a huge problem. The bigger problem is that we are content with only superficial action. With blame and shame. We can all do better than that.

We can work to find prevention strategies that are effective. Innovation can bring us better treatment for children who have obesity. And we already have options that we can use to provide better care for them right now. It’s time to start delivering that care.

Click here for the UNICEF report and here for the study from IJO. For further perspective from NPR, click here.

At School in Laos, photograph © Bart Verweij, World Bank / flickr

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October 22, 2019

5 Responses to “Explosive Global Growth in Childhood Obesity – So What?”

  1. October 22, 2019 at 6:42 am, Fernando Aguirre P. said:

    If we begin in overweight since childhood will have better opportunity to prevent obesity. Metabolic Syndrome exists this early without obesity and it is possible to measure it without a lab test. Hope Elsevier will show one paper who describes the way to do it.
    Love to show you the results of 7 years of research.
    Fernando

  2. October 22, 2019 at 7:32 am, Ted said:

    Thanks, Fernando! I’ll be eager to see your publication. We need more interventions that actually work.

  3. October 22, 2019 at 11:46 am, John DiTraglia said:

    “It’s pretty clear that shifts in our environment are triggering ever more obesity in children and their parents. A big part of it is changes in the food supply. But other factors are driving it too. Stress and distress. A physical and technology environment that take routine physical activity out of our lives. Drugs and chemicals that disrupt our endocrine systems. It’s not just one of these factors. All of them are acting in synergy.”

    this sounds like we know why – but we really don’t

  4. October 22, 2019 at 12:00 pm, Ted said:

    Thank you, John. You’re right. We have suspects. But no single factor is responsible. Many factors are acting in synergy.

  5. October 22, 2019 at 4:39 pm, Michael said:

    Waiting for complications is indeed a scandal. Imagine if all treatment for my uncomplicated hypertension was unavailable until I had a stroke?