Childhood Obesity

Childhood Obesity and its Devastating Consequences

Several studies in Malta have repeatedly shown unacceptably high levels of overweight and obesity and this trend is clearly on the increase. A study performed about seven years ago showed that by school-entry (around 5 years of age), a third of children in this country are overweight or obese. Since humanity has not changed, this must be due to changes in our environment and the way that we relate and react to it. Most of the problem is caused by greater relative affluence, the easy availability of cheap and unhealthy foods, urbanization, and very importantly, alterations in types of foods consumed and a reduction in physical activity.

Unfortunately, obese parents tend to produce obese children. Obese mothers also tend to have impaired glucose tolerance or even diabetes in pregnancy, and this produces fat babies who are naturally at risk of becoming obese. It is estimated that if one parent is obese, their children have a 30% risk of being obese, and if both parents are obese, this risk climbs to 60%. Obesity has a direct health impact leading to disease and therefore, obesity is a disease. For example, in the United States, it is estimated that obesity causes almost 8% of all deaths and these are not only cardiovascular deaths (such as stroke and heart attack) but also cancer deaths, as obesity also predisposes to cancers of a surprising variety of types.

It is important to reinforce the point that fat children become fat adults who produce more fat children. Puppy fat is also a myth as it has been unequivocally shown that children who enter puberty when fat will remain or return to being fat. Furthermore, the earlier the age of onset of obesity in childhood, the greater the likelihood of obesity and its complications in adulthood.

Obesity, in some respects, is like smoking, in that once fat, after slimming, the likelihood of regaining excessive weight is quite high, just like smokers who have a high chance of relapsing back to smoking after stopping smoking.

Insurance companies estimate that overall, obesity shortens life, on average, by over 5 years for males and by over 7 years for females.

It is impossible to lay a detailed strategy to deal with this problem, but for the vast majority of individuals, an appropriate diet that concentrates mainly on fruit and vegetables, and an appropriate level of daily exercise, will suffice to prevent and to control overweight and obesity.

Apart from the cost to the individual, obesity also costs the community a significant amount. For example, it is conservatively estimated that obesity accounts for 16% of the global burden of disease and 2-7% of global health care expenditure. To give just one country as an example, the current US annual cost for treatment of obesity and related complications is over €58 billion, and over €33 billion for the EU. When we catch up with the US (which will be soon with the current obesity epidemic affecting our children), the cost to the Maltese taxpayer will be €78.3 million per annum (Maltese population just over 400,000. US population 298,444,215).

It should be amply clear by now that prevention is crucial, hence children must be targeted with healthy eating and healthy lifestyle campaigns.