Childhood Obesity: A Crisis In Public Health

The increasing prevalence of overweight and obese children and adolescents poses a major concern worldwide. Dietary practice in these critical periods affects physical and cognitive development and has consequences in later life. Therefore, acquiring healthy eating behaviors that will endure is important for children and adolescents. Nutrition management has been applied to numerous childhood obesity intervention studies. Primary prevention methods are aimed at educating the child and family, as well as encouraging appropriate diet and exercise from a young age through adulthood, while secondary prevention is targeted at lessening the effect of childhood obesity to prevent the child from continuing the unhealthy habits and obesity into adulthood. A combination of both primary and secondary prevention is necessary to achieve the best results.  Diverse forms of nutrition education and counseling, key messages, a Mediterranean-style hypocaloric diet, and nutritional food selection have been implemented as dietary interventions. The modification of dietary risk in terms of nutrients, foods, dietary patterns, and dietary behaviors has been applied to changing problematic dietary factors. However, it is not easy to identify the effectiveness of nutritional management because of the complex and interacting components of any multicomponent approach to intervention in childhood obesity. 

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Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. The problem is global and is steadily affecting many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. The prevalence has increased at an alarming rate globally. It is estimated that up to 200 million school aged children are either overweight or obese, of those 40-50 million are classified as obese. Obesity has negative health impact in childhood, as well as in the long term. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated that approximately 19% children between the ages of two to nineteen years of age were at or above the 97 percentile for being obese.

Overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and are more likely to develop non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. In addition to a higher risk of obesity and non-communicable diseases later in life, affected children experience adverse outcomes such as breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, and early markers of cardiovascular disease, different forms of cancers, insulin resistance, and psychological effects. The most effective interventions include comprehensive behavioral management, dietary modification, and exercise. Family-based interventions have been most successful at maintaining long-term weight loss. School-based interventions have the potential to significantly impact childhood overweight as large numbers of children can be reached. However, such programs require long-term follow-up and are expensive. Very low calorie diets, pharmacotherapy, and surgery remain experimental options for children. More recently, metformin has shown promise in promoting weight loss and improving insulin sensitivity among adolescents. Combining multiple approaches for treatment, addressing obesity-promoting sociocultural practices and policies, and focusing on prevention strategies will be necessary to address this epidemic. Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death, and disability in adulthood. If a child is overweight before eight years of age, obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe. Child and adolescent obesity is also associated with increased risk of emotional problems.

Teens with weight problems tend to have much lower self-esteem and are less popular with their peers. Depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder can also occur as a result of childhood obesity. In addition to the diseases associated with obesity, the economic consequences of obesity are enormous for families, health care systems, and the global economy. Direct medical costs include preventative, diagnostic, and treatment services related to overweight and associated co-morbidities. European nations spend 3-9% of their health care budgets on obesity, equating to 0.6% of their gross domestic product. The prevalence of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence is high. Excessive body fat at a young age is likely to persist into adulthood and is associated with physical and psychosocial co-morbidities, as well as lower cognitive, school and later life achievement. Lifestyle changes, including reduced caloric intake, decreased sedentary behaviour and increased physical activity, are recommended for prevention and treatment of child and adolescent obesity.

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Several conditions, such as pulmonary or orthopedic complications are strictly associated with the severity of overweight, since they are directly associated to the mechanic stress of fat tissue on the airways or on the bones. Other conditions, such as metabolic or liver complications, although increasing with the extent of overweight, are associated with insulin resistance, which can be modulated by different other factors (ethnicity, genetics, fat distribution) and can occur in overweight children as well. No less important are psychological correlates, such as depression and stigma, which can seriously affect the health related quality of life. Pediatric services for the care of childhood obesity need to be able to screen overweight and obese children for the presence of physical and psychological complications, which can be still reversed by weight loss. Evidence suggests that lifestyle interventions can benefit cognitive function and school achievement in children of normal weight. Appropriate metabolic screenings and associated comorbidities should start as early as possible in obese children and adolescents. Nevertheless, improving dietary intake and increasing physical activity performance are to date the best therapeutic tools in children to weaken the onset of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes risk during adulthood.

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