Childhood obesity. It’s a big problem in the U.S. And without addressing the problem, today’s obese kids and teens will be tomorrow’s overweight adults. With that comes a host of health problems such as insulin resistance or diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL). Individually, these diseases are bad enough to deal with. Together, they create a devastating—even deadly—disease known as metabolic syndrome.
In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that obese two-year-olds have a greater than 50 percent chance of being obese at age 35.
Alarmingly, according to the Cleveland Clinic, at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease can be found in as many as 60 percent of overweight adolescents. Early screening is key, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend regular screening for cholesterol in kids ages nine to 11 and again at ages 17 to 21.
As for diabetes, one study found that, compared with children of healthy weights, obese children are at a four times greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when blood glucose or sugar levels are too high and the body doesn’t make enough insulin to manage the overload. That leaves the glucose in the blood, instead of sending it to the body’s cells where it can create energy. Long-term, type 2 diabetes can lead to everything from heart disease and stroke to diseases of the feet, eyes, and mouth. It can also cause kidney disease and, in some people, lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL), a disease in which fat builds up in the liver—my realm of expertise as a hepatologist. It’s estimated that some 15 to 20 percent of people with NAFL have NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis), a more aggressive liver disease that can lead to inflammation and the development of deadly problems such as fibrosis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Some 10 percent of children in the U.S. are estimated to already have NAFL.
The U.S. is not going to be able to afford obesity when the kids of today become adults. It costs more to pay all the extra health care expenses from the problems that stem from obesity. Compared to healthy individuals, emergency room costs for obese patients are 22 percent higher, and even moderately obese people are more than twice as likely to be prescribed medications to help manage their health problems. Those problems also cause lost work days, lower productivity at work, and even permanent disability. Obese employees have 25 percent more work-related injuries, file twice as many compensation claims (which, by the way, are seven times higher than healthy-weight employees), and they take 10 times more days off, on average, for work-related injury or illness. And it’s going to take an army of health care workers to handle such an unhealthy population—at a time when the overburdened health care system is about to implode.
Every day in my practice, I tell patients this: It’s time to take a good look at your life and decide what lifestyle changes you can make for yourself—and your family. If you can’t or won’t make changes for yourself, then think about how your lifestyle is going to look on your children when they become adults. Obesity makes people unwell and less productive, and that makes it tougher to enjoy life. Is that what you really want for your kids?