For the bulk of history, humans struggled to eat enough—from the time of hunter-gatherers living in a wild and dangerous world right up to modernity. Only with the advent of large-scale agriculture, huge food corporations, and open trade were most humans on Earth able to consume enough calories to survive. Though extreme malnutrition still exists in some parts of the world these days, it has diminished substantially.
And now that we're not starving anymore, many of us have gone to the other extreme. We have easy access to low-nutrient, high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie foods anytime we want for pennies on the dollar, and it’s killing us. The effects on our children are particularly horrifying: childhood obesity has more than doubled in America in the last 30 years and now affects nearly 17 percent of all kids and adolescents.
Now, two recently published Danish studies suggest it’s probably even worse than we thought. Here’s a rundown of just six of the long-term health problems linked to childhood obesity.
One of the new studies out of Denmark examined the body mass index (BMI) of more than 250,000 children. The researchers found that for every unit of increase in being overweight at age 13 (generally a two- or three-point increase in BMI), a child’s risk of developing colon cancer increased by 9 percent and rectal cancer by 11 percent.
In a study of more than 300,000 Danish people born between 1930 and 1987, researchers found that the likelihood of having a clot-related stroke early in life increased significantly as childhood body mass increased. The association was especially strong in overweight 13-year-olds.
Several studies have connected obesity in children with cardiovascular problems and heart disease later in life. Experts say that early screening for risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and of course, obesity can help prevent long-term damage.
Childhood obesity is often associated with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health problems including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
It might sound obvious, but obese toddlers are likely to become obese teenagers, who are likely to become obese adults. A 2014 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine sampled nearly 8,000 kindergartners and concluded that “overweight 5-year-olds were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese by age 14.” Other data shows that children who are obese between 10 and 13 have an 80 percent chance of becoming obese in adulthood, which means their likelihood of developing the diseases listed above isn't going away anytime soon.
Not to get too dark, but we know that being either obese or overweight is a factor in early mortality. Estimates for the number of deaths associated with obesity range from 100,000 annually to more than 400,000. Whatever the actual number is, it’s far too high.
As we learn more about what causes obesity in children—and consequently, how obesity impacts health later in life—we should continue, as a society, to attack the problem from every angle: through education, corporate accountability, and legislation.
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