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Obesity in children: Causes and treatment

by Ortwin Brauer
obesity in children

Obesity in children

The progression of obesity has increased in recent decades in Western societies, including Quebec. The World Health Organization even speaks of a global epidemic.

However, this problem does not only affect adults. In fact, more and more young children and school-age children are also affected by overweight and obesity. In 2012-2015 in Quebec, 30% of young children aged 3 to 5 were at risk of being overweight, obese or overweight. In Canada, 12% of children aged 5-17 were obese and 20% were overweight in 2009-2011.

What are overweight, obese and obesity?

Overweight and obesity  are defined as an abnormal or excessive accumulation of body fat that adversely affects health. Obesity is greater than overweight.

To know if a child has a weight problem, doctors use the body mass index (BMI). This measurement is based on both weight and height. However, for children, the interpretation of BMI needs to be adjusted for age and gender. The BMI values used for adults are therefore not suitable for children. In adolescence, this measure can be replaced by waist circumference.

Causes of overweight and obesity in children.


There are many factors that contribute to overweight and obesity in children. Including:

  • Poor nutrition, to which the food industry contributes (fast food, prepared meals, very large portions, advertising, etc.) In Quebec, the law prohibits the broadcasting on television of food advertising aimed at children aged 0 to 13, but there are no rules for advertising on social networks, online video games or online shows. Many products that are not very nutritious (e.g. muesli) have signs on their packaging that appeal to children;
  • A diet high in fat, salt and sugar. In addition to promoting overweight and obesity, foods high in fat, salt or sugar can also lead to many diseases, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and/or high cholesterol. Children are not immune to these diseases;
  • Consume more sugar (e.g. apple sauce, fruit juice). Fruit juices and compotes, even those that are 100% pure, have been processed to destroy or remove the fibrous part of the fruit or vegetable they contain. Without the fibre, sugar is more easily converted into fat, which is then stored in the fat cells;
  • Lack of sleep, as children who do not get enough sleep tend to eat more. The sleep deficit that sometimes occurs during summer holidays, the lack of a bedtime schedule or excessive use of screens are directly linked to weight gain and cravings in children;
  • Sedentary lifestyles, lack of exercise and sitting in front of screens for hours on end. Children who are busy with free play or sporting activities do not think directly about snacks. Young children also spend too much time sitting, especially in front of screens. In addition, children who spend a lot of time in front of screens have less restful sleep, which makes them more likely to have food cravings the next day;
  • Meals eaten in front of a screen. In fact, a child whose attention is focused on a screen and not on their meal is unable to recognize the first signals of satiety that their body sends them. They tend to consume in excess of what their body needs;
  • Fast food. When children eat quickly, they tend to eat larger quantities and refill often without having had time to sense the first signals of satiety;
  • Genetics and environment. There are more than 150 genes that can regulate appetite, the feeling of fullness and the way the body absorbs and processes food. These genes that promote weight gain can be passed on from either parent. However, we now know that these genes can be controlled through physical activity, a healthy diet, adequate sleep and a healthy approach to screens;
  • certain diseases (e.g. genetic disorders, endocrine disorders or neurological damage). Some genetic disorders affect the areas of the child’s brain responsible for appetite and satiety. Primary endocrine disorders (e.g. hypothyroidism) or secondary endocrine disorders (e.g. caused by prolonged systemic cortisone use) can also affect appetite and satiety, but sometimes have a significant impact on how fat cells respond;
  • Socioeconomic status. Meal planning helps to reduce food costs and make better food choices. However, low income and low education are associated with higher consumption of high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat and ultra-processed foods, as these are often cheaper. This sometimes prevents access to healthier foods.


How can an overweight child be made to lose weight?

Apart from the physical discomfort, childhood obesity is a factor of unhappiness: ridicule from friends affects self-image. The psychological suffering is very real.
When this situation occurs with your child, you must act. As a parent, you can help your child lose weight, step by step.

1- Evaluate the situation

First, calculate your child’s body mass index (BMI). If you find that your child is overweight, medical help is needed. The following tips will be helpful for overweight children in the long run.

2- Change the way you eat

To make a child lose weight, it is necessary to change the way he eats and not impose any kind of diet: a varied and balanced diet is essential for growth.
A varied and balanced diet is essential for growth. It is therefore advisable to give preference to fresh, high-quality food prepared at home. Reduce carbohydrates, especially simple sugars.

3- Establish a dialogue and cooperation

Establishing a friendly dialogue with your child helps lay the foundation for a healthy relationship with food. Involve them in the shopping and preparation of meals.
This gives them the confidence to take charge of the process.

4- Eat healthy foods throughout the day.

Breakfast deserves its title as the “most important meal of the day”.
To avoid snacking and thus balance blood sugar levels and prevent weight gain, the meal must be hearty, varied, low in sugar and include a source of protein.
So don’t hesitate to serve your child an “English” breakfast: Egg, wholemeal bread, fresh wholemeal fruit (instead of juice).
Children have to make some sacrifices to lose weight: Forget the convenience of eating sugary “cereal” and get up a little earlier.

To avoid deviations at lunch in the canteen, tell your child which foods to prefer and which to avoid. Or prepare a balanced packed lunch.

Dinner is the ideal opportunity for the family to gather for a healthy meal, without screens.

5- Sugar, the bad friend of children.

We like to associate childhood with sweets and lollipops….. Wrong!
Not only do these products cause obesity and tooth decay, but their additives can also cause attention problems. To avoid them, simply limit them to special occasions, such as birthdays. The same goes for soft drinks, syrups and fruit juices, which are real sugar bombs and have been shown to contribute to weight gain.
Finally, carefully avoid compotes and dairy desserts with added sugar.

6- Delicious alternatives

And to reconcile pleasure and health, here are a few alternatives: fresh fruit, roasted nuts, crushed strawberries in natural yogurt, lemonade with honey. Don’t ban biscuits, but choose quality biscuits and limit the amount of biscuits at snack time.

7- Move together

Reducing your child’s sedentary lifestyle is important to help them lose weight.

Limit screen time to one hour per day.
Use weekends to do dynamic activities as a family: Swimming, walking, cycling, etc.
Playing in the park after school gives your child the opportunity to exercise and promotes a good night’s sleep.
Reduce sedentary lifestyles to help children lose weight.

Points to consider

Obesity is a disease that can lead to complications even in young children.
The psychological impact of overweight and obesity should not be ignored as it relates to a child’s self-esteem and self-actualisation.
To achieve lasting behavioral changes in the family, it is best to work with health professionals who work in community-based programs to support and teach healthy lifestyles.

We need to act now!

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