Obesity in children

The number of overweight children in Australia has been increasing in recent years. According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 one quarter of all Australian children (or approx. 600,000 children aged 5-17 yrs) were overweight or obese. This represents a four percentage point increase from figures in 1995.

There is no single cause of obesity in children, but contributing factors include: lack of physical exercise, unhealthy food choices and poor family eating habits, including an over reliance on convenience foods.

Why is obesity a problem ?

Many of the problems of obesity are realised in adulthood. These include:

  • Type 2 diabetes – usually seen in adults but diagnosis in children is on the increase
  • Respiratory problems – such as asthma and sleep apnoea
  • Heart disease – caused by the heart having to work harder to pump blood around the body
  • Orthopaedic problems – as a result of increased strain on the skeletal system. Most notably seen in knees and feet
  • High blood pressure

However, obesity can also have a major impact on how a child feels and how they interact with peers. According to a report to the World Health Organisation*, overweight and obese children are more likely to suffer stigmatisation and be labelled with negative stereotypes.  They are also more likely to have fewer friends and experience ongoing peer rejection which is associated with lower psychological functioning in adults.

Management of Obesity

The management of obesity needs to have a multi-faceted approach. This includes:

  1. An increase in physical activity – an increase in physical activity during treatment is a long term indicator of permanent weight loss.  Suggestions for increasing physical activity include:
    • Walking all or part of the way to school
    • Participating in fitness groups with other kids who have the same goal – it is often hard for overweight or obese children to participate in community sport. Reduced fitness levels can make it difficult for children to keep up with their peers, thereby worsening self esteem issues. Specific obesity/fitness groups provide a non-judgemental environment for kids to have fun participating in physical activity with their peers
  2. Reducing sedentary behaviour, including screen time
  3. Making healthier food choices
  4. Changing family habits, including eating together as a family and reducing convenience foods

* Lobstein T, Baur L & Uauy R, 2003, Obesity in YoungPeople; the coming crisis inpublic health: report to the World Health Organisation,International Obesity Taskforce, London.