A 2013 Department of Health report on obesity in the UK found 3 in 10 children aged between 2 and 15 were classified as either overweight or obese. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US reports a rapid 4-fold rise in
child and adolescent obesity (ages 6-19) over the past 20 years. Child obesity is almost always associated with a rise in type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular events, sleep apnoea, asthma, orthopaedic complications, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cancer, psychosocial difficulties and lower measures of quality of life. These facts are not to be taken lightly and it is not only our children’s physical health and wellbeing that is at stake but also their mental performance.
Child obesity is rarely due to kids eating too much broccoli, fruit or nuts. Increased body weight is almost always associated with poor nutrition (empty calories). During the early 1990’s soft drink consumption increased by 41%. This is very significant considering that for every can of sugary pop consumed, the risk of becoming obese rises by 1.6 times. But it is not only super sweet ‘child friendly’ drinks such as concentrated fruit juices or (mislabelled) healthy ‘milk shakes’ that help our children pile on the pounds. A lack of fresh produce, regular consumption of pre-packed, processed foods, unhealthy snacking and a diet based on refined carbohydrates and processed fats all take centre stage in the child obesity crisis. One ingredient in particular has taken over children’s breakfast bowls, lunch boxes and even dinner plates and it is holding oblivious parents to ransom. Sugar is the common denominator in many foods marketed specifically for children. Even though sugar provides the main fuel for our brain cells, it is not a case of ‘the more, the merrier’. Kids only need the equivalent of one level teaspoon of sugar circulating in their bloodstream; any excess will be converted into fat storage. Constantly high sugar levels will also produce a spike in insulin, which can have dramatic effects on child behaviour, concentration and mental performance, as well as paving the way for diabetes.
Here is an example that illustrates the problem in more realistic terms: after a breakfast of sugary cereal and a glass of orange juice, six year old Tommy has enough sugar in his blood to nourish an adult for a day. He feels full of energy, almost ‘hyper’ and his pancreas has to pump out superhuman amounts of insulin to keep the sugar under control. By the time he has arrived at school and the first lesson of the day is about to commence, he suddenly feels tired, irritable, can’t concentrate and he finds himself doing anything but the tasks asked of him. Tommy’s pancreas has produced so much insulin that now his blood sugar levels are dangerously low, interfering with brain function and sapping his energy. As the lesson draws to a close, he cannot wait to reach into his school bag and tear the wrapper off the chocolate bar that he has picked up from the newsagent across the road. The most welcome sugar hit injects life back into the body and insulin is at an all time high…until half an hour before lunch, when blood sugar levels steeply fall again and Tommy’s thoughts are not with his times tables but with his next dose of tangy treats.
This imbalance of blood sugar levels in overweight children is largely responsible for their lack of concentration and poor mental performance. Their bodies simply don’t allow them to stay focused and energetic throughout the day and, sadly, type 2 diabetes is likely to be just around the corner. In addition, energy production and brain function is dependent on a number of nutrients which are not found in sugary breakfast cereal or a chocolate bar. It is no surprise that such overfed and undernourished children show dramatically impaired cognitive performance and mental abilities. Health status during early childhood is a very good predictor of quality of life during adulthood. These overfed but malnourished children turn into malnourished adults with real health problems; they may face crippling chronic disease, weight issues and depression because the foundations of good health, laid during the very early years of childhood, have not been put in place.
This is just one facet of child obesity but its effects on wellbeing and health later on in life are manifold. Another factor that is just as damaging as a cup full of sugar is the emotional and psychological strain that being overweight brings. Bullying, social isolation and a lack of self-confidence have a dramatic knock-on effect for cognitive abilities and general performance in school. A child that doesn’t feel well, physically, emotionally and mentally will not excel academically.
Tackling the child obesity crisis is not an easy task because too many factors seem to be out of our hands. School meals, readily available junk food, fizzy drinks in vending machines and the deceptive labelling of ‘child friendly’ food products all play their part. On the positive side, we, as parents and carers of the young, are able to instil healthy eating habits into our children while they are still small and therefore help to shape their future.