The rate of childhood obesity in Canada has nearly tripled over the last 30 years. In addition, children who are obese are 20% more likely to die from cardiovascular complications. Although the pathologies are very similar, weight management strategies in children significantly differ from those used by adults. While intervention strategies in adults primarily focus on individual behavior-oriented approaches such as dieting and exercise, children often respond better to environment-oriented approaches that limit access to junk foods and provide opportunities for kids to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Factors that connect obesity to hypertension
Of the adolescents that develop obesity, the majority continue to be obese into adulthood. This can increase the risk of metabolic, cancerous, cardiovascular, and cardiometabolic disease. Obesity is correlated strongly with hypertension due to body mass index (BMI) directly affecting the heart’s workload; however, there are subtle cellular changes brought on by accumulating fat mass that perturb the body towards the early onset of disease. Specifically, a subset of tissue next to our hearts, periventricular adipose tissue (PVAT), provides an anti-contractile effect in small arteries and maintains healthy heart function (2). In obese individuals, this PVAT tissue can be overwhelmed by cellular signals (cytokines) brought on from excess adipose tissue in other body parts and become inflamed. This systemic inflammation brought on by obesity can lead to increased oxidative stress and a loss of anti-contractile function, which can cause further heart malfunction. Inflammation in these tissues has been shown to promote insulin resistance through the insulin signaling pathway. If sustained, inflammation can promote the release of fatty acids from stored fat, eventually leading to arterial vessel wall thickening and further impinging on heart function (2).
In the evolving technological landscape we live in, children face unknown threats to their health and mental well-being daily. With the rise in popularity and presence of social media and readily available entertainment platforms, more children live a sedentary lifestyle than ever before. Additionally, high levels of screen time later in the day can cause disruptions in melatonin cycles, which can significantly impact the trajectory of puberty in children. Irregular sleep can also affect impulse control and leads to increased incidence of food cravings, and acute elevation in blood pressure, further exacerbating the risk of becoming overweight or obese (3).
Encouraging children to set down their phones once in a while and spend more time playing outside can be highly beneficial for their physical and mental health. Studies have shown that the likelihood of childhood overweight or obesity is greatly influenced by proximity to the nearest playground (4). Some children are more self-motivated to go outside and enjoy physical activity, while others may require some encouragement to find their favorite activity. Encouragement can come in many forms, such as enrollment into an extracurricular sports program, where kids can be exposed to new activities and meet friends with common interests.
Childhood education about healthy eating habits is severely lacking. 46% of young children (aged 9-11) are obese, and 49% do not possess sufficient knowledge about diet and nutrition to make impactful choices (5). A valuable strategy to promote healthy eating is to limit access to unhealthy options. Many breakfast foods and snacks marketed towards children leverage sugar cravings and rarely contain any beneficial nutrients. Improving the dietary composition of an overweight child can promote weight loss and improve health outcomes. While this is an obvious intervention strategy to manipulate, adhering to a diet is much more difficult for a child who may not fully understand the reasons for dieting. Therefore, it is imperative to start teaching kids about healthy eating habits early in life. Although dieting can cause reductions in disease risk, it can be impactful to take a different psychological approach and promote healthy eating to improve one’s physical and mental wellbeing. Rather than scaring children by telling them about the risks of poor eating habits, it can be even more powerful to show them the rewards of healthy eating, and teach them that healthy food is often just as delicious as the alternative junk food option.
With the current state of society and its predatory temptations for children, it is especially important now to instill good habits early in life by teaching the younger generation about the importance of healthy eating and active living. Educating children about healthy habits early in life can have the greatest impact on maintaining good health and reducing risk well into old age. Do not hesitate to contact us if you need help.
Dr. Rohan Bissoondath,