Causes and risks for obesity - children

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Introduction

When children eat more than they need, their bodies store the extra calories in fat cells to use for energy later. If this pattern continues over time, and their bodies do not need this stored energy, they develop more fat cells and may develop obesity.

No single factor or behavior causes obesity. Obesity is caused by many things, including a person’s habits, lifestyle, and environment. Genetics and some medical conditions also increase a person’s chances of becoming obese.

Learned Behaviors and Habits

Infants and young children are very good at listening to their bodies’ signals of hunger and fullness. They will stop eating as soon as their bodies tell them they have had enough. But sometimes a well-meaning parent tells them they have to finish everything on their plate. This forces them to ignore their fullness and eat everything that is served to them.

The way we eat when we are children may strongly affect our eating behaviors as adults. When we repeat these behaviors over many years, they become habits. They affect what we eat, when we eat, and how much we eat.

Other learned behaviors include using food to:

  • Reward good behaviors
  • Seek comfort when we feel sad
  • Express love

These learned habits lead to eating no matter if we are hungry or full. Many people have a very hard time breaking these habits

Lifestyle and Environment

The family, friends, schools, and community resources in a child’s environment reinforce lifestyle habits regarding diet and activity.

Children are surrounded by many things that make it easy to overeat and harder to be active:

  • Parents have less time to plan and prepare healthy meals. As a result, children are eating more processed and fast foods that are usually less healthy than home-cooked meals.
  • Children see up to 10,000 food commercials every year. Most of these are for candy, fast food, soft drinks, and sugared cereals. See also: Snacks and sweetened beverages - children
  • More foods today are processed and high in fat and contain too much sugar.
  • Vending machines and convenience stores make it easy to get a quick snack, but they rarely sell healthy foods.
  • Overeating is a habit that is reinforced by restaurants that advertise high-calorie foods and large portion sizes.

At Home

If a parent is overweight and has poor diet and exercise habits, the child is likely to adopt the same habits.

Watching television, gaming, texting, and playing on the computer are activities that require very little energy. They can take up a lot of time and replace physical activity. And, when children watch television, they often crave the unhealthy high-calorie snacks they see on commercials.

See also: Screen time

At School

Schools have an important role in teaching students about healthy food choices and exercise. But not all schools offer healthy food choices or time for physical activity. Vending machines in schools that sell soda and other sugary drinks make it easy for children to make unhealthy choices.

In the Community

Having a safe community that supports outdoor activities at parks, or indoor activities at community centers, is important for encouraging physical activity. If a parent feels it is not safe to allow their child to play outside, the child is more likely to do sedentary activities inside.

Eating Disorders and Obesity in Children

The term "eating disorders" refers to a group of medical problems that have an unhealthy focus on eating, dieting, losing or gaining weight, and body image.

Obesity and eating disorders often occur at the same time in teenage girls and young, adult women who may be unhappy with their body image.

Genetic Factors

Some children are at greater risk of obesity because of genetic factors -- they have inherited genes from their parents that make their bodies gain weight easily. This would have been a very good trait hundreds of years ago, when food was hard to find and people were very active. Today, though, this can work against people who have these genes.

Genetics is not the only cause of obesity. To become obese, children must also eat more calories than they need for growth and energy.

Obesity may be linked to rare genetic conditions, such as Prader Willi syndrome.

Medical Factors

Certain medical conditions, such as hormone disorders or low thyroid function, and certain medications, such as steroids or anti-seizure medications, can increase a child’s appetite, which over time increases their risk for obesity.

References

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 8/1/2012
  • Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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This page was last updated: April 14, 2014

         
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