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Conventionally, a fat child is considered to be a healthy child. However, excessive weight of children can lead to obesity, which has become a major health problem in developed nations, and to some degree, in developing nations as well (Ebbeling, Pawlak & Ludwig, 2002). In 2010, more than 40 million children under 5 years of age were found to be either overweight or obese. WHO defines obesity as “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health”. A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more indicates obesity (2012). This paper analyzes the causes and various health risks of childhood obesity, specifically focusing on the psychological trauma associated with it.
According to CDC (Centre for Disease Control), childhood obesity has increased alarmingly in the past three decades. In the US, the percentage of obese children under 11 years of age was 7% in 1980. This figure increased to 20% in 2008. CDC data reveals that 11% children in the US have a BMI exceeding 95%, which indicates obesity; whereas about 14% have a BMI in the range of 85% to 95%, which indicates that the patient is at risk of becoming obese (Nieman, 2003).
Obesity at any age results from an imbalance in the energy balance equation. There is an increased intake of energy in the form of calories consumed and decreased expenditure of energy (inadequate physical activity). The factors contributing to increased obesity in children are a complex interplay of social, behavioral, biological, economic, dietary, and environmental factors. While genetic predisposition of an individual plays a role in developing obesity, the sharp rise in childhood obesity, in the past two decades, clearly indicates environmental factors being primarily responsible (Bascetta, 2005).
The past twenty years have experienced an increased invasion of technology in daily lives. The rise in TV viewing, the advent of computer games, food advertisements targeting children, and the increased and easy availability of high-fat, high-sugar fast foods are the primary causes of rise of obesity in children (Kiess, 2004).
Obesity in children causes a number of medical problems such as hypertension, diabetes, sleep apnea, asthma, and insulin resistance. In addition, obesity can have a significantly damaging effect on the psychological development of a child. Obesity is a major stigma in most modern societies. Obese children are often subjected to teasing, social isolation, and discrimination which can adversely affect confidence, self-esteem and can lead to depression (Bagchi, 2011).
Social isolation results when obese children are teased and laughed-at. They feel inferior, unattractive, and ashamed. They tend to stay away from social activities and group situations. They exhibit increased concern with self image, withdrawal, and expectation of rejection from peers. They are awkward in social situations and prefer solitary and sedentary activities like TV viewing, reading, and eating. In such situations, food often acts as a comfort factor. This, coupled with decreased physical activity, leads to weight gain (Cassell & Gleaves, 2009).
Obese children, especially girls, display more dissatisfaction with their bodies. This can lead to poor self-esteem and increased risk of depression. The low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction in children and adolescents can extend into adulthood and create obstacles in forming healthy relationships. Overweight children have difficulty in making friends. Obese children are discriminated by their peers and teachers. They are thought to be lazy, less intelligent, less competent, and lacking will-power. As a result, they develop negative self image, negative feelings about their appearance and may also develop eating disorders (Bagchi, 2011).
Impact of self esteem on psychology becomes even more important in older children, as their environment changes from being family-oriented to peer-dominated. Therefore, individual athletic abilities, competence, popularity among peers, and general self-worth are correlated with physical self-image (Bagchi, 2011).
The social stigma and isolation associated with obesity can cause symptoms of depression in children and adolescents, and depression, in turn, causes even more weight gain (Kiess, 2004).
Obesity is the epidemic of the twenty first century, and it has far reaching consequences on an individual’s physical and mental health. The recent rise in childhood obesity is particularly alarming, as children are developing health disorders, which were earlier associated with middle aged or old people. This lowers the quality of life and shortens its span. It also puts a heavy economic burden on the country. The negative psychosocial consequences of obesity, such as bias and discrimination often affect self perception, esteem, body image, and social functioning of children. They often grow up to be adults who are less confident and less capable of forming healthy relationships. Preventing childhood obesity requires education and awareness of parents and active participation of schools.
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