Dubai: Over 36 per cent of children in the UAE are obese, according to World Health Organisation, an issue that gains urgency as the World Anti-Obesity Day is observed on Saturday (November 26).
Currently, according to a University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 66 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women in the UAE are obese, which clearly indicates that obesity is a progressive disease and if parents fail to check it in childhood, children grow into obese adults suffering several health complications.
Two paediatric obesity experts from the Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, who treat children from all GCC countries including the UAE for this condition, caution parents on the dangers of obesity and its potential to cause both mental and physical problems.
Dr Lee Hudson, consultant paediatrician at GOSH, said: “The definition of overweight means that a child’s body weight (in particular, the volume of body fat) is higher than that of most children’s in a healthy population.”
Dr Bahee Van de Bor, specialist paediatrician and dietitian at GOSH, explained why obesity snowballs into life-threatening health issues. “Overweight children are at high risk of becoming obese adults. Overweight children and young adults are more likely to have problems with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions that are linked with excess weight including asthma, non-alcoholic liver disease, gall stones, problems with joints and polycystic ovary syndrome. These health problems arise when childhood obesity continues into adolescence and then adulthood; particularly when the cause of weight gain is not addressed early. When poor eating patterns are not addressed early, ongoing weight gain can lead to overweight and then obesity.
“The good news is that health problems such as high blood cholesterol and blood pressure linked to obesity can be managed early in childhood. When left untreated, these health concerns can progress into life threatening problems later in life. Identifying and treating rapid weight gain early to prevent children from becoming obese, is key.”
How our body organs are adversely impacted by obesity? Obese children are at an added health risk as their problems get compounded in adulthood as they suffer acute organ deterioration.
Due to obesity, blood vessels to the brain may narrow, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body efficiently. As an obese child grows into an obese adult, he is likely to have higher risks of suffering cerebral strokes
Excess fat leads to fat deposits that make blood vessels become more stiff, thus obstructing blood flow. This happens over a period of time. Recent research conducted by a team of consultants from GOSH in London and UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health into the impact of obesity in children has shown that these children develop stiffer arteries. This leads to stiffer arteries in adults which are linked to problems such as strokes and coronary artery disease which can lead to an earlier death. Dr Hudson from the study has concluded that “there was sufficient evidence to suggest that obese children have higher rates of stiffening of their arteries which provides evidence that these children are at risk of heart disease when they grow older”.
Excess weight leads to diabetes. Many children are suffering from Type II diabetes which over a long period leads to severe eye damage called retinopathy. It leads to vision loss through increased risk of retinal inflammation.
Obese children are more likely to suffer from asthma and sleep apnoea (difficulty in breathing). This problem can easily be resolved in childhood as the child is trained to eat healthy and shed excess body fat. However, if left uncontrolled, the excess body fat eventually obstructs the nasal passage, reducing oxygen flow and causing breathlessness, disturbing sleep rhythm that also leads to poor sleep and fatigue.
Increased abdominal or visceral fat in children compounds the risk of diseases such as high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and colon cancer. If obesity is checked during a child’s growing years, he can easily get rid of the visceral fat which is a precursor to all lifestyle diseases.
Obese children are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes due to a poorly working pancreas. Early onset of diabetes leads to a prolonged exposure of pancreas to damage eventually destroying its capacity to produce any insulin, the important hormone that regulates blood sugar. In adults who have damaged pancreas, there is also an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
As obesity and diabetes have become more common, so has fatty liver disease. Fat in the liver does not build over night. It is a slow process and when abdominal obesity and metabolic syndrome cause insulin resistance to remain unchecked for long, it causes a spike in fatty acid levels in blood which causes fat to accumulate in liver cells. Fat in liver cells causes inflammation and damage to liver tissue.
Knees and other joints
Obesity may increase the risk of osteoarthritis and the need for total knee-replacement. While this happens in adulthood with constant wear and tear of joints, doctors warn that fat children who continue to carry one-and-a-half times more body weight are usually putting their joints at risk from early on. This further affects their ability to participate in sport and can make daily simple tasks such as walking and sitting painful.
Being overweight may cause skin problems due to several factors. Children are often appreciated for their chubbiness, but prolonged chubbiness indicates presence of excess body fat. As a child grows to be an adolescent, there are changes in hormones that may cause acanthosis nigricans, which are darkened, velvety areas of the neck and body folds, while stretching of the skin may result in stretch marks (striae). Increased strain on the leg veins may cause fluid retention, leg swelling, rupture of superficial capillaries (capillaritis), varicose veins, dermatitis, and even ulcers. Retained moisture in body folds encourages the growth of bacteria and fungi, leading to skin rashes and potential breakdown and a variety of infections, such as intertrigo. Finally, the foot may develop corns and calluses due to the increased weight.
It may be noted that while all side effects of obesity actually take place in adulthood, it is always advisable to be vigilant about obesity from childhood. Unchecked increase of weight over a prolonged period puts a strain on all organs of an individual’s body triggering these diseases.
(Source: Dr Bahee Van de Bor, specialist paediatrician and dietitian, Great Ormond Street Hospital, London)