We’ve all wondered what life would be like if we had been born someone else. 

Some of us grew up in poverty and daydreamed about what life would be like if our parents were rich. Others grew up without parents at all, and wondered what having a biological family would be like. Some grew up in abusive households. Some grew up with an uncommon disease or mental disorder. Some grew up in a third world country where food is scarce and survival is anything but assured.

Whatever your upbringing, whether good, bad or otherwise, you’ve undoubtedly wondered what life would be like if your circumstances were different. 

In today’s world, an increasing number of children are growing up wondering what it would be like to be a healthy weight.

In 2013, 42 million infants and young children worldwide were overweight or obese. At current rates of increase, this number is expected to reach 70 million by 2025. 

More than a third of American children and adolescents were either overweight or obese as of 2012. At our current rate of health decline, the next generation in the United States is very likely to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents for the first time in our nation’s history.

Risk Factors for Childhood Obesity

There are many contributing factors to childhood obesity. Genetics is certainly one of these – but did you know that poverty can play just as large a role? 

Researchers in Canada have found that obesity rates increase in lower-income areas where access to healthy foods is limited by either availability or price. Compounding this problem, lower-income neighborhoods are less likely to provide easy access to modes of exercise. 

Other risk factors include parenting style. One factor in particular is authoritarian versus authoritative parenting.

Authoritative parenting is a style wherein the parent(s) require obedience and maintain control of their children, whilst also being highly responsive to their children’s needs. Authoritarian parenting on the other hand, demands obedience without a substantial amount of responsiveness to the child.

Research has shown that authoritarian parenting is over 35% more likely to result in overweight or obese children than authoritative methods.

Another parenting risk factor is simply lifestyle – if your family is mostly overweight, your child is likewise more prone to becoming overweight. Often this could be because high calorie foods are more readily available, exercise is rarely encouraged, portion sizes are more generous and habits simply favor weight gain over all.

With the overwhelming increase in obesity rates nationwide, the studies on the subject are also increasing. The National Science Foundation recently awarded a $1.7 million dollar grant to fund a team at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science in a quest to better analyze the behavioral dynamics behind the condition. Working with University of Southern California psychologists, they hope to pinpoint in-home causes of poor eating habits.

"The long-term goal is to provide real-time interventions in a way that improves the family eating dynamic and then has the downstream impact on diet and exercise and ultimately obesity rates," says John Lach, chair of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

How Obesity Harms a Child

We all know that obesity is unhealthy – particularly in adults, because most of the health issues serious enough to require medical intervention don’t surface until adulthood. As a result, it can be easy for parents to overlook the health risks for an overweight child. After all, they’re kids. Kids aren’t supposed to worry about things like weight.

On the contrary however, excess weight takes a tremendous toll on the body even during childhood. 

Heart disease – the number one killer of Americans today – doesn’t wait for you to reach your 40’s – or even your 30’s. Studies have shown that overweight children are at risk of developing heart disease as early as their 20’s. Thickened heart muscles and increased muscle mass of the left ventricle – both signs of heart disease – have been seen in obese children as young as 8 years old

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is another serious risk – especially among Hispanics. Studies have shown that NAFLD is now the most common liver abnormality in children between 2 and 19 years old. NAFLD begins with fat causing the liver to enlarge. Over time, scar tissue forms, ultimately leading to cirrhosis – that is, the death of liver cells. NAFLD can lead to liver failure requiring transplant, as well as liver cancer – and it occurs in roughly one third of obese children.

Bone health and growth plates are of particular concern. In children, growth plates are special structures at the end of most of the bones made of cartilage. These lengthen the bone during growth. Excessive weight during adolescence can put more strain on these points than they are designed to bear, sometimes resulting in fractures or other damage. A more common example of this is Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis – a condition where the growth plate in the ball joint at the hip shifts and the ball joint no longer aligns correctly with the bone. This invariably requires surgery to correct. 

Insulin resistance is common amongst obese children, and occurs when the body stops reacting properly to insulin. Muscles use glucose as fuel – and insulin is the trigger that causes this to take place. In insulin resistance, the body reacts less and less to these insulin triggers, which ultimately results in the body producing more and more insulin. Over time, this leads to Type 2 Diabetes. Studies have shown that diabetics diagnosed at the age of 50 live an average of 8.5 fewer years than non-diabetics, and life expectancy for a type 2 diabetic once diagnosed tops out at just over 20 years. I’ll leave it to you to decide how this math would apply to a 15 year old.

These are just a few of the risks associated with childhood obesity. Hormonal changes, metabolic syndrome and pseudotumor cerebri are other noteworthy problems. Hormonal imbalances take an especially large toll on girls. Research has indicated that obese adolescent girls are 2 to 3 times more likely to die by middle age than those of normal weight.

What can be done?

Children are highly resilient. This fact is partially to blame for a general lack of concern – in that parents tend to assume their child is healthy simply because he or she ACTS healthy. This fact is also the best news for a concerned parent seeking to turn the tides and help their child get healthy.

Additionally, children are still in their growth and learning stages. The habits you develop in them early will often stick with them for the rest of their lives. This is why it is so crucial to engender healthy eating habits and encourage regular exercise from a young age. 

The fundamentals are simple:

Next time you catch yourself dreaming of what life would have been like if your childhood had been different, remember that you have the unique and wonderful opportunity to provide the best possible life for your own children.