The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health notes that the ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity is jeopardizing the future health of well-being of children in the county. Childhood obesity is both a national and a local crisis. Nationally, obesity rates have tripled since the late 1970s. In Los Angeles County, more than 1 in 5 students in the fifth, seventh, and ninth grades are now obese. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has alerted the public to yet another impact of obesity on children’s health. On April 3, the academy issued a warning that obesity impacts children’s mental health.
The AACAP notes that recent expert research on childhood obesity reveals that the problem has a significant risk for increased emotional and cognitive problems that last well into adulthood. Thus, the academy joins others in the medical and public health community in calling attentional to the mental health impacts of childhood obesity as a burgeoning national public health crisis.
The academy notes the following statistics:
- From 16% to33% of children and adolescents are obese.
- The condition is among the easiest medical conditions to recognize but most difficult to treat.
- Unhealthy weight gain due to poor diet and lack of exercise is responsible for more than 300,000 deaths annually.
- The annual cost to society for obesity is estimated at nearly $100 billion.
- Overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults unless they adopt and maintain healthier patterns of eating and exercise.
Child and adolescent obesity is associated with increased risk of emotional problems. Teens with weight problems tend to have much lower self-esteem and be less popular with their peers. Depression, anxiety, and an obsessive compulsive disorder can also occur.
The AACAP offers the following suggestions for managing and treating childhood obesity:
- Obese children need a thorough medical evaluation by a pediatrician or family physician to consider the possibility of a physical cause.
- In the absence of a physical disorder, the only way to lose weight is to reduce the number of calories being eaten and to increase the level of physical activity. Lasting weight loss can only occur when there is self-motivation. Since obesity often affects more than one family member, making healthy eating and regular exercise a family activity can improve the chances of successful weight control for the child or adolescent.
Ways to manage obesity in children and adolescents include:
- Start a weight-management program
- Change eating habits (eat slowly, develop a routine)
- Plan meals and make better food selections (eat less fatty foods, avoid junk and fast foods)
- Control portions and consume less calories
- Increase physical activity (especially walking) and have a more active lifestyle
- Know what your child eats at school
- Eat meals as a family instead of while watching television or at the computer
- Do not use food as a reward
- Limit snacking
- Attend a support group such as Overeaters Anonymous)
The academy notes that obesity frequently becomes a lifelong issue. The reason most obese adolescents regain their lost pounds is that they tend to go back to their old habits of eating and exercising. Therefore, an obese adolescent must therefore learn to eat and enjoy healthy foods in moderate amounts and to exercise regularly to maintain a desired weight. Parents of an obese child can improve their child's self-esteem by emphasizing their strengths and positive qualities rather than just focusing on their weight problem. When a child or adolescent with obesity also has emotional problems, a child and adolescent psychiatrist can work with the child's family physician to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. Such a plan would include reasonable weight loss goals, dietary and physical activity management, behavior modification, and family involvement.
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