Generally speaking, I think most of us are guilty of enjoying the occasional trips to McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or Panda Express. In strict moderation, of course you can indulge that greasy burger. Go ahead, devour those delicious empty calories! However, we’re all adults here and we, more than likely, have a strong sense of control over what we eat. Children, on the other hand, don’t really care about their caloric intake, so trips to those fast food joints are always a hoot with zero regrets. However, for just a brief moment, let’s walk away from those negative connotations that fast foods equal “fat kids,” when in reality, that isn’t always the case. There are a wide range of factors that can contribute to obesity in children, but some are more to blame than others.
Contributors to Childhood Obesity: Nature vs Nurture
While a higher consumption rate of eating fast foods can play a huge role in the overall health of a child, it isn’t the only factor that contributes to obesity. For instance, childhood obesity can be caused by two underlying theories: nature and nurture. Ah yes, the good ol’ nature versus nurture debate. In terms of childhood obesity, I would argue that both of those theories come into play.
For instance, “nature,” or the biological and genetic predisposition on human traits, plays a big role in childhood obesity. One of these factors contributing to the prevalence of obesity is the ethnicity of the child. Studies have shown that African-American and Hispanic children have a higher chance of being overweight or obese in comparison to that of White children (Mazidi & Speakman, 2017). This mainly has to do with the socioeconomic background of families of color, but we’ll dive deeper into that when we talk about “nurture” later on.
Predisposed hormonal conditions, illnesses, or diseases in children can cause childhood obesity as well. One of these conditions could be hypothyroidism in children, or when the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone for the body. One of the major symptoms of hypothyroidism in children is uncontrollable weight gain (Crothers et al., 2009).
Maternal obesity is also a natural contributor to the prevalence of childhood obesity. In fact, early childhood obesity is very much influenced by mothers who are obese during pregancy, which continues to be perpetuated as the child ages. Furthermore, a child’s birth weight is also a strong predictor of childhood obesity (Crothers et al., 2009). If a child weighs more than average at birth, then they are highly predicted to be obese or overweight at the age of three. If a child is obese at the age of one or two, they are predicted to be obese at the age of five and so on.
In the “nurture” sense of the latter, environment has a big role on the prevalence of obesity in children. Children that come from urban, low-income families tend to be more susceptible to being overweight or obese (Mazidi & Speakman, 2017). Although low income household and ethnicities aren’t always correlated in the prevalence of obesity, they are suggested to go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to education levels of the child. Lower pediatric education on healthy eating, physical education, and exposure to healthier foods, such as fruits and vegetables, result in increasing risks of childhood obesity (Mazidi & Speakman, 2017).
Having a sedentary lifestyle is also associated with childhood obesity. More than often, sedentary behaviors coexist with eating, specifically unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks (Poti et al., 2014). Modern life, as we know it now, is all screen time and zero exercise. These days, children are more inclined to stay inside watching television, staring at their phones, and searching the web rather than getting their daily dose of physical exercise. Children tend to use up less energy, or burn less calories, if they aren’t up and getting their little feet moving!
Drawing back to prenatal conditions, chemical exposures to bisphenol A (BPA) and diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the womb may cause a predisposition to obesity in children later on in life. This is due to the chemicals genetically changing the physiological disposition of the child by causing them to abnormally grow larger as they age by accumulating more body fat due to difficulties processing glucose (Crothers et al., 2009). In this case, the amount of food consumed by the child and the amount of exercise would have no effect on weight gain or loss.
There are many attributes contributing to the increasing prevalence rate of childhood obesity and fast foods isn’t the only factors to blame. Whether it’s due to their genetic predisposition or their undesirable environment, children with obesity shouldn’t be shamed for their weight and neither should their parents. Sometimes these factors are out of the parents’ control and other times food just needs to be on the plate. We don’t know their circumstances, therefore we shouldn’t assume anything. If the parents of those children want to take their kids to eat McDonald’s, then I say let them! Who are we to judge anyway.
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Mazidi, Mohsen, and John R Speakman. “Higher Densities of Fast-Food and Full-Service Restaurants Are Not Associated with Obesity Prevalence.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 106, no. 2, Aug. 2017, pp. 603–613., doi:https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/106/2/603/4557628.
Poti, Jennifer M, et al. “The Association of Fast Food Consumption with Poor Dietary Outcomes and Obesity among Children: Is It the Fast Food or the Remainder of the Diet?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 99, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 162–171., doi:https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/99/1/162/4577265.
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