If your children struggle with their weight, new research suggests they may also suffer from diseases once seen only in adults.
Stiffening of the arteries, which can lead to early heart attacks and strokes, and type 2 diabetes were found in many of the more than 600 obese children, adolescents and young adults studied. And the problem is only getting worse: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the pandemic obesity among American children has jumped from 19% to 22%.
"We're all very well aware that childhood, adolescence and adulthood obesity rates are quite staggering, and the risk for related chronic diseases is quite pervasive," said senior researcher Joseph Kindler, an assistant professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens. "Unfortunately, we're at a point that we're able to see these really severe complications earlier and earlier in the lifespan. Our youngest participant in this study was 10 years old -- it's pretty phenomenal, unfortunately."
Kindler said that what early diabetes and heart disease mean for these children as they get older isn't known, but he fears that they may have a heightened risk for chronic conditions as adults.
Childhood obesity isn't caused by just one factor, he said. A combination of an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep and genetics probably all play a part, Kindler noted.
"Some of these factors are eating a healthy diet and physical activity, but some things that aren't often talked about, like are we sleeping or are we stressed or other factors, also contribute," he said. "So they're all very much a part of the story. And it makes it very important as we move forward to think about the unique period of history we're living in where this is all coming to the fore."
Turning the tide on the obesity epidemic won't be easy, he added.
"These data serve as a call to arms of, look, we have problems that are occurring with the development of chronic health conditions that in some sense can be prevented, but it's more than just consuming a couple of pieces of fruit or vegetables," Kindler said. "It really does require a significant amount of mindfulness from individuals, families and communities."
The bottom line is that there needs to be a cultural change, he said.
The report was published online recently in the journal Pediatric Obesity.
Sharon Zarabi is a dietitian and program director of Northwell Health's Katz Institute for Women's Health in New York City. She said, "It is a sad, yet expected, phenomenon with the prevalence of adult-onset disease affecting our youth. With the ease of access to processed foods, lack of physical activity, increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, it is no surprise that obesity is increasing at multifold rates in adolescents. What is striking is that the human body, no matter what the age, is not resilient enough to fight the damage being done."
The human body cannot sustain the amount of sugar and fat people consume, she noted. "What is worrisome is that the excess sugar gets stored in the liver and muscle, and contributes to excess visceral [abdominal] fat, which is the most metabolic and detrimental to our health," Zarabi said.
"We need to teach our children how foods affect our growth, development, mood, focus and performance. As the old adage goes, you are what you eat," she said. "So, if you eat junk, it will deposit itself in cells, arteries and organs, disrupting their natural biology."
For the study, Kindler and his colleagues measured abdominal fat and arterial stiffness in more than 600 children, adolescents and young adults aged 10 to 23.
The investigators found higher levels of visceral fat and arterial stiffness in the overweight participants, which suggests that abdominal fat is likely to cause cardiovascular problems in kids.
Although studies of cardiovascular risks among children are limited, changes to the cardiovascular system likely begin early, the researchers noted.
In addition to the growing risk for heart disease, being overweight or obese increases the risk for type 2 diabetes. Kindler's team found that 145 of the study participants already suffered from the condition.
Dr. David Katz, president of the True Health Initiative (a nonprofit that promotes healthy living as the best way to prevent disease), said, "Obesity is a major contributor to serious chronic diseases and deserves serious attention. This alarming finding suggests that the origins of future cardiovascular disease in the obese affects more of our kids."
Obesity, and childhood obesity, is a crisis in the United States and much of the world, Katz said.
"This crisis has only been amplified during the COVID pandemic, as obesity is implicated in a higher risk of serious infection and death. The mandate for dedicated efforts to reduce obesity prevalence, in adults and children alike, is clear, compelling and urgent," Katz said. "A cultural commitment to the elimination of 'junk' where food ought to be, to higher quality food as the prevailing norm, and to daily physical activity for all -- is long overdue."
For more on childhood obesity, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Joseph Kindler, PhD, assistant professor, department of nutritional sciences, University of Georgia, Athens; Sharon Zarabi, RD, program director, Northwell Health Katz Institute for Women's Health, New York City; David Katz, MD, MPH, president, True Health Initiative, Tulsa, OK; Pediatric Obesity, Oct. 19, 2021, online