Government experts, health professionals, educators and concerned citizens have been warning Americans about the danger epidemic obesity poses to our nation's long term health and economic prosperity. The issue is often discussed in terms of its impact on the adult population, but unless something is done to curtail the problem, obesity will become a societal norm within a few decades.
In honor of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, we're going to look at obesity's effects on children and adolescent Americans, putting special emphasis on the lasting effects socio-economic pressure on American youth will have on future weight management problems.
Surveys show that adolescent obesity is on the decline, but there's a noticeably sharp contrast between children in lower income families compared to their affluent counterparts.
The results of an analysis of 36,827 children by Xiaozhong Wen of Harvard University's School of Public Health and colleagues shows that Medicaid insured children are not losing weight as successfully as children insured by other programs. Wen's team points to research which shows higher income children have greater access to healthier foods, lifestyles, home environments, as well as dietary and exercise counseling than children raised in lower income families.
This theory is supported by Cornell University researcher Gary W. Evans who analyzed 244 children (age 9 years) to establish a link between exposure to stressors in early childhood and adolescent weight gain found that children exposed to stressors e.g. poverty, family turmoil, substandard housing suffered decreased self-regulatory behavior in their teen years.
The result was that four years later (age 13) these adolescents experienced higher adiposity which put them at risk for obesity in later life.
In the early developmental years, these young people did not learn how to delay gratification, and this impairment of self-regulatory behavior - which was linked to emotional stress - led the children to overeat. It is likely to have a lasting effect, with the impulse to overindulge significantly hampered, they'll have greater difficulty refraining from overeating when exposed to stressful situations throughout life.
A Different Way of Looking at the Obesity Epidemic
The obesity epidemic may have a socioeconomic component in that people residing in high income environments may experience a turn around in obesity whereas lower income Americans will continue to gain weight placing their own lives in jeopardy while also putting strain on the nation's healthcare resources.
Puder and Munsch's assessment of psychological factors' effect on childhood obesity can be looked at in terms of familial conflict, impulsivity, deficit of emotional regulation and uncontrolled eating behavior. Two of the most striking take aways from their study was learning unhealthy eating habits early in life and that children who have difficulty keeping their emotions in check e.g. depression, anxiety, social isolation are likely to experience weight gain.
First off, children may pick up bad eating habits from their parents. When children watch their parents eating high volumes of empty calories, they are much more inclined to perceive this as approval to consume fattening foods which then makes the children susceptible to unhealthy weight gain.
An even more important, albeit often overlooked, factor is stressful home environments. For example, stress brought about by poverty can have tremendous impact on a person's psychological health and well being.
Stress is the catalyst for production of norepinephrine, cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, and neuropeptide Y - all of which contribute to adiposity. They also point to the fact that in addition to their role in body fat regulation, these very same neurotransmitters are associated with depression.
Then, when obese children attempt to interact with other children their age, they may experience social stigma i.e. ridicule and isolation which again increases the release of stress hormones which affect the obese child's metabolism (not to mention the tendency to eat food as a coping mechanism) thereby continuing the vicious cycle of stress, overeating and obesity.
Results of a study by Columbia University researchers establish that depression in already obese children may lead to weight gain in adulthood. When you consider these facts, it becomes apparent that children maybe in for a lifetime of weight problems if depression comes to influence their eating behavior.
Stress plays a very significant role in food consumption.
When Born, Lemmons, Rutters et al studied the effect of acute stress on food choice in adult women they found that stress causes increased consumption of carbohydrates. Stress caused the release of cortisol which influenced female volunteers to eat even when they were NOT hungry.
Basically Born's investigation of normal weight adult women shows that stress alters the way the brain perceives food.
Imagine, then, what can happen when young people whom are constantly exposed to extreme psychological stress, coupled with limited access to healthy food options, eat large amounts of fattening foods as a coping mechanism?
The Task that Lies Ahead
A ready interpretation of the facts surrounding childhood obesity in low income environments would be that the task of health care professionals, educators and caregivers is to provide young people with the tools necessary to participate in healthy lifestyles i.e. better nutrition, regular exercise, improved living arrangements, greater socioeconomic opportunities.
This becomes the responsibility of federal, state and local agencies, school districts, health care professionals, community organizations, parents and children.
Considering that obese and overweight children are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and that children and adults in the lower income bracket are often under insured or lack any form of health insurance, it becomes imperative that we as a nation tackle these underlying issues and thereby reverse the obesity trend for all Americans.
God is the embodiment of compassion. As He bestows compassion upon you, show compassion to others.
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Evans GW, Fuller-Rowell TE, & Doan SN (2012). Childhood cumulative risk and obesity: the mediating role of self-regulatory ability. Pediatrics, 129 (1) PMID: 22144695
Wen X, Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Sherry B, Kleinman K, & Taveras EM (2012). Decreasing prevalence of obesity among young children in Massachusetts from 2004 to 2008. Pediatrics, 129 (5), 823-31 PMID: 22529276
Puder JJ, & Munsch S (2010). Psychological correlates of childhood obesity. International journal of obesity (2005), 34 Suppl 2 PMID: 21151145
Born JM, Lemmens SG, Rutters F, Nieuwenhuizen AG, Formisano E, Goebel R, & Westerterp-Plantenga MS (2010). Acute stress and food-related reward activation in the brain during food choice during eating in the absence of hunger. International journal of obesity (2005), 34 (1), 172-81 PMID: 19844211
Pine DS, Goldstein RB, Wolk S, & Weissman MM (2001). The association between childhood depression and adulthood body mass index. Pediatrics, 107 (5), 1049-56 PMID: 11331685
"Social Pressures Push American Teens Toward Obesity" copyright © 2012 Living Fit, Healthy and Happy(SM). All Rights Reserved.