Childhood obesity is on the rise throughout the world. In 2008, 24.9% of Canadian children and adolescents 12 to 17 years of age were overweight or obese (Statistics Canada, 2008). Not only are there more obese youth than ever before, but they are becoming obese earlier in life (Canadian Diabetes Association, 2013).
In Canada, the incidence of obesity in children and adolescents has almost tripled in the last 30 years.
There are also more and more young people with type 2 diabetes, a type of diabetes that used to occur primarily in adults.
There are multiple causes of obesity. It results from the complex interaction of such factors as:
- lifestyle (diet, physical activity)
- environment (school, family, access to sports facilities, access to foods, etc.)
The potential consequences of childhood obesity
Weight problems tend to persist into adulthood and obese children and adolescents are more likely to develop a range of health problems, including diabetes.
The health problems associated with obesity affect many of the body’s systems. Obese children are more likely to develop prematurely some of the following problems (Government of Canada, 2013):
Physical health problems:
- high blood pressure or heart disease
- type 2 diabetes
- liver disease (fatty liver or cirrhosis)
- sleep apnea and other breathing problems (asthma, etc.)
- abnormal menstrual cycles (hormonal imbalances)
- bone and joint problems
- balance problems
Emotional health problems:
- low self-esteem and negative body image
- feeling judged
- being teased or bullied
A guide: the Body Mass Index (BMI)
The BMI is a measurement tool that helps you assess the risks related to excess weight. It is calculated by taking a person’s weight in kilos, divided by height in metres squared (BMI = weight (kg) / height2 (m)). There are graphs with curves specific to each gender that indicate the percentile distribution of BMI by age.
BMI is an imperfect measurement because it does not take a child’s body composition into account: fatty tissue, bone mass and muscle mass. It is also important to factor in a child’s growth on the percentile growth curves rather than rely on a single isolated number. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for advice, if you think weight is affecting your child’s health.
How to adopt healthy habits as a family
To help children and adolescents manage their weight, an intervention that involves the entire family has been proven to be the most effective. It is unrealistic to expect young people to change their eating habits if their family does not follow suit.
Interventions involve adopting good food habits (quantity and/or quality), burning calories (physical activity, an active lifestyle), but also working on building self-esteem.
Tips for healthy eating
- Set a good example for your children. You are their role model.
- Eat meals together as a family as often as possible. Make them a pleasant occasion in a relaxed atmosphere.
- Involve the children. Let them choose foods at the grocery store, or for the weekly menu, let them help with food preparation, etc.
- At every meal, serve your family a variety of foods from each food group in Canada’s Food Guide.
Tips for an active lifestyle
Children and adolescents should do at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day and limit their sedentary activities (for example: TV watching, video games) to fewer than 2 hours per day.
- Set a good example. Add physical activity to your daily routine. Choose active transportation (walking, biking) or do a sport or physical activity together as a family.
- Find out about the exercise and sports opportunities in your community.
How to help your child/adolescent maintain a healthy weight
In a growing child, the emphasis should be on weight maintenance and harmonizing weight with size rather than on weight loss, which is valid only for adults who have stopped growing.
Indeed, overly strict dietary restrictions could compromise your child’s bone mass and body composition over the long term.
A few suggestions to help you work effectively with healthcare professionals:
- Be sure that your child fully understands the reasons behind the weight-control measures.
- Take care not to guilt your child. Be sure he or she doesn’t feel punished or restricted.
- Take a positive approach. Avoid outright bans and praise your child for every victory.
- Set realistic goals. Don’t expect to correct every bad habit at once, or suddenly transform a sedentary child into an Olympic athlete.
- Encourage your child to participate in activities that interest him or her.
- Bolster your child’s self-esteem and more positive body image. Avoid commenting on weight; focus on the child’s good qualities and accomplishments.
- Closely monitor your child in conjunction with your healthcare providers: doctor, dietitian, psychologist, social worker and others.
Research and writing: Diabetes Québec Team of Health Care Professionals
Scientific review: Huot, Céline, M.D., M. Sc., Pediatric Endocrinologist, Hôpital Sainte-Justine.
Statistics Canada, Measured youth body mass index (BMI), by age group and sex, household population aged 12 to 17 excluding pregnant females, Canada (excluding territories). http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a26?id=1050506&p2=46&retrLang=eng&lang=eng (Web page consulted July 17, 2014).
Health Canada, (2013), Childhood Obesity. http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/health-sante/obesity-obesite/risks-risques-eng.php (Web page consulted May 20, 2014).
C. Panagiotopoulos et al., Canadian Diabetes Association Clinical Practice Guidelines Expert Committee, “Type 2 Diabetes in Children and Adolescents,” Canadian Diabetes Association 2013 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Diabetes in Canada (Canadian Journal of Diabetes, vol. 37, pp. S542-S547).