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‘Early Intervention Needed’: Is Childhood Obesity Hampering Indian Kids’ Growth?

Managing childhood obesity can be tricky, but possible with early intervention, say experts.

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Fit
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India is sitting on the cusp of an obesity crisis, indicates a recent global report published in the medical journal, The Lancet.

According to the study, although the prevalence of obesity is still low in India, the rate at which it is increasing is alarming. For instance, between 1990 and 2022, obesity among men and women over the age of 20 years has increased by over 2,000 percent.

A statistic from the study that really stands out, though, is that in India, obesity in children between the ages of five and 19 years has gone up from 0.4 million in 1990 to 12.5 million in 2022.

This, experts warn, could become a massive public health crisis in the future.

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'Childhood Obesity Is a Public Health Concern'

It's not just the Lancet study. Studies conducted within the country in the past few years also allude to an alarming rise in obesity among Indian kids.

A study conducted by researchers at King George's Medical University, Lucknow, did a meta-analysis of 21 studies in India between 2003 to 2023 and found that the prevalence of childhood obesity was estimated to be 8.4 percent.

According to the NFHS-5 report, the prevalence of overweight children under the age of five has increased from 2.1 percent in 2015–2016 to 3.4 percent in 2019–2021.

Apart from poor eating habits, experts say another reason for this could be the drastic fall in physical activity among children during the pandemic years.

We know that obesity can lead to a slew of other non-communicable diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart issues, but is it as much of a risk factor in children as it is in adults? Does obesity impact your child's growth and development too?

How Does Childhood Obesity Impact Your Kids' Health?

Obesity is a risk factor for non-communicable diseases or 'lifestyle diseases' in the case of very young children as well.

According to a study published in 2022, 60 percent of overweight or obese children have at least one additional risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension and hyperlipidemia.

In fact, the risk of hypertension or high blood pressure is three times greater in obese children than in non-obese children.

Speaking to FIT, Dr Rajiv Uttam, Director, Paediatric Care, Medanta Hospital, Gurugram, says, "Sleep disorders are very common among children with obesity."

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"In cases of extreme obesity, children can have sleep apnea and other breathing issues while sleeping that can cause low oxygen intake and then lead to high blood pressure, heart issues, etc."
Dr Rajiv Uttam

Poor sleep also means lethargy and drowsiness throughout the day, which can impact the child's performance in school and in social circles.

In really young children – infants and toddlers – being overweight can lead to delays in early milestones.

Dr Uttam tells FIT, "We are seeing babies that are as young as three-years-old who are clinically obese. When they need to start crawling and standing up, they aren't able to do so with so much weight, it puts a strain on their legs and hands, and the kids end up lagging behind."

Moreover, overweight babies may also be more prone to developing allergies and eczema.

Mental Health and Social Development

FIT has previously covered how obesity can impact mental health. It applies to children as well.

Now, while there isn't strong evidence to suggest that obesity disrupts the brain development of young children, it can indirectly lead to poor performance in school and negatively impact the psychological development of the child.

Dr Uttam says that he has come across young patients who try to make medical excuses to avoid going to school. "Overweight kids tend to be picked on in school by their classmates.They lose their confidence, develop body image issues, hate going to school, and isolate themselves."

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'Tackling Childhood Obesity Can Be Tricky'

Weight loss is hardly ever a straightforward journey as simple as 'eat nutritious food and avoid junk food'.

Even tailored diets by professionals can show great results at first and then stop working. Crash diets can sometimes lead to weight gain, and deprivation of certain food groups can lead to disordered eating patterns.

It's trickier still when it comes to managing nutrition for children – which is why it is important to introduce healthy eating habits from a very young age.

"Diet from birth to 24 months shapes long-term food preferences. People are hard-wired to crave sugar because it built up fat stores and kept our ancestors from starving when food was scarce. But kids can learn to accept bitter foods high in nutrients, like vegetables, if they are offered them repeatedly in early childhood."
Lisa Bodnar, Nutritional Epidemiologist

Writing for FIT in the past, nutritional epidemiologist Lisa Bodnar explained, "If young kids fill up on high-calorie, sugar-laden foods or drinks, it leaves less room for nutritious foods."

So, not only do they end up with negative health consequences, including childhood obesity, cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay, but also miss out on essential nutrients required for healthy growth and run the risk of malnutrition.

Moreover, she adds, parents should be vary of 'hidden sugar' in seemingly healthy packaged foods like yoghurt and baby food.

A report released by an independant Swiss investigative organisation, Public Eye, on 17 April, says that Nestle, one of the biggest multinational food and drink corporations in the world, adds sugar to its baby formula sold in African and South Asian countries, including India.

According to experts, excessive sugar at infancy could be a major contributing factor behind the rise in obesity among young children in third world countries.

Other times, Dr Uttam say, the cause for obesity among kids (as in adults) may not nutritional.

"If a child is taking a balanced diet and still putting on weight, it can be due to hormonal issues, or some other underlying health issue," he says.

He adds, "This is why it's important to look at a child's health as a whole."

The experts that FIT spoke to suggest:

  • Get periodic weight and height checks done for young children, including babies.

  • Expose young children to all food groups to build a palette for nutritional food.

  • Avoid giving them ultra-processed foods, especially those with added sugar.

  • Make sure kids get enough physical exercise.

  • Keep track of other possible symptoms of hormonal imbalance in case of sudden and unexpected weight gain.

(All of April, Quint FIT is decoding the alarming rise in obesity in India and the various health risks associated with it. Follow our full coverage here.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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