The Causes of Obesity in Children

...and what we can do about it!

There are many causes of obesity in children and in this article we will identify these causes, examine what the health risks are for overweight children and what childhood obesity statistics tell us about the likelihood that obese children become obese adults.

We will also examine some of the options we have available to us in order to combat this growing problem and prevent it from becoming worse.

Obesity in children is a serious problem in today's society and is likely to lead to a whole generation of people with a range of health issues. It is a matter that needs to be addressed with some degree of urgency!

The causes of obesity in children

Obesity in Children

Food marketing to children

There are many creative ways food manufacturers are able to successfully market their products to children. Here is just a sample of some of the techniques they use:
  • Advertising using cartoon characters
  • Strategically-placing products at their eye level in stores
  • Providing toys with their products
  • Providing well-equipped playgrounds
  • Of course there are many other techniques used by food marketers to generate children's interest in their products. Unfortunately though, the types of foods being promoted to children are high-sugar and/ or high-fat foods that are cheap to manufacture and these are the exact foods that lead to obesity in children! For more information about some of the techniques used to promote foods to children, read the article on Healthiest Breakfast Cereals.

    Access to 'junk foods' during school hours

    Access to 'junk foods' during school hours is a major contributor to obesity in children. The 3 main areas that provide most of these foods are:

  • Vending Machines
  • Foods supplied in school canteens
  • Proximity of shops to schools
  • Each of these factors makes unhealthy foods easily accessible to children immediately before school, during school hours and also immediately after school as well. Making this type of food easily accessible to children during their school day means that they are far more likely to consume these foods compared to healthier options and therefore, increase their chances of becoming obese children.

    Cost of food

    It is amazing how cheap high sugar and/ or high fat foods are compared to healthier options. Since the government subsidises the cost of manufacturing certain foods on farms, it becomes much cheaper to consume foods produced using these ingredients compared to eating natural fruits and vegetables!

    Food preparation

    In many cases the preparation of the food itself has already been done by food companies, which means that all the children need to do is open the packet and eat! Of course they can do the same thing with most fruits and vegetables but some may require some preparation, i.e. roasting, steaming, mashing, etc.


    Huamns are innately designed to eat more sweet-tasting foods and less bitter-tasting foods. This is believed to be part of our evolution as a species. For example, when we were hunter/ gatherers we would often taste foods first before eating them to decide whether or not they were suitable for us. Sweet foods were generally berries and other types of fruits that provided many healthy nutrients to our bodies as well as being a source of energy. Bitter foods, on the other hand, were generally poisonous and were best avoided. Therefore, over time, it is hypothesised that we became attracted to foods that had a sweet taste and avoided foods that had a bitter taste.

    Unfortunately though, these days we have an opportunity to eat foods that are loaded with sugar (and that are highly palatable) and this is certainly a major cause of obesity in children or at the very least an increase in the number of overweight children.

    Lack of physical activity

    Physical activity (exercise) is part of the other side of the energy balance equation (energy out). Many people have negative connotations towards exercise. Whether it resulted from an over-zealous physical education teacher at school who forced them to perform activities that weren't enjoyable or perhaps they were embarrassed during an exercise session early in their life, whatever the reason, people have to change their attitude towards physical activty and more importantly have to encourage their kids to get involved on a regular basis in order to make it a permanent part of their lifestyle and to help prevent obesity in children.

    Childhood obesity statistics

    Results from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), using Body mass Index (BMI), show that around 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese. Between 1976-1980 and 1999-2000, the prevalence of obese children increased. However, between 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 there was no significant increase in the incidence of obesity.

    Ogden et. al. (2010) found that pre-school age children (2-5 years of age) in the US had an increase in obesity from 5 to 10.4% between 1976-1980 and 2007-2008 and from 6.5 to 19.6% among 6-11 year olds. Among adolescents (aged 12-19), childhood obesity statistics showed an increase from 5 to 18.1% during the same period!

    Freedman et. al (2007) noted that obesity in children and adolescents increases their risk of health problems during their youth and as adults. For example, during their youth, obese children and adolescents are more likely to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease (such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes) than are other children and adolescents.

    Whitaker et. al. (1997) and Serdula et. al. (1993) both found that obese children and adolescents are more likely to become obese as adults. In fact, it was determined that approximately 80% of children who were overweight at aged 10-15 years were obese adults at age the age of 25.

    Freedman et. al. (2001) found that 25% of obese adults were overweight as children. This study also found that if are obese children (before 8 years old), obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe.

    How we can prevent the
    growing rate of obesity in children

    There are many ways we can stop or better yet, reverse the growing rate of childhood obesity. Here are some suggestions:

  • Control the way food manufacturers market to children
  • Limit the accessibility of 'junk foods' during school hours and make more healthy options available
  • Tax 'junk foods' and re-direct the finds to healthy programs for children like, 'Head Start'
  • Subsidise the cost of fruits and vegetables for farmers as opposed to other food products
  • Teach children the benefits of healthy eating and how to prepare healthy foods correctly
  • Educate parents about rewarding children using 'junk food'
  • Make exercise in schools compulsory and ensure that it emphasises fun rather than 'hard work'
  • Obesity in children is becoming a global problem and if we want to prevent it from leading to a range of societal problems in the future, not only from a health perspective but also from an economic perspective, then steps must be taken now it in order to control this problem and ensure it doesn't worsen.

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