"She likes to eat," the mother said. She didn't have to spell it out. It was obvious that her child at the age of nine was well on her way to become obese.
I counseled clients like her before. They keep coming to my practice on a regular basis. Children as young as three or four years old are being diagnosed with multiple health problems caused by overweight. Sadly, they will have to cope with the consequences for the rest of their lives. They are cut off from their future in so many ways, and so unnecessarily.
There are the physical aspects. Too much fat in a growing body wreaks havoc all around, from bones and muscles to vital organs. Overweight and obese children and teenagers are at an immediate risk of heart disease due to high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. Most are pre-diabetic, meaning they are likely to develop full-blown type 2 diabetes before they reach adulthood. Their bones and joints, unable to carry the extra weight, will weaken and in many cases deform. The list of potentially catastrophic outcomes goes on.
Many of the health issues they are facing early on will only worsen as they grow older. Most will continue to struggle with weight management and related diseases for as long as they live. The long-term effects can become ever more severe, and at some point acutely life-threatening. Premature death from heart failure, stroke or cancer is a real possibility.
The children who fall prey to these diseases will never live their lives to the fullest and will probably succumb far too soon.
For children, the psychological impact of being overweight is equally as menacing. Many suffer from a poor body image and low self-esteem. Depression and suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among older kids and adolescents who struggle with their appearance. Some develop eating disorders and engage in other dysfunctional and detrimental behaviour, like under-age smoking, drinking and drug use.
For parents, it can be hard to acknowledge that their offspring is having weight issues. They may hesitate to address the subject because they don't want to hurt their child's feelings and make things worse. If they are themselves on the heavy side, they may not see "a little chubbiness" as such a big deal. Or they blame it on their family's genetic makeup. Or they hope their kid will eventually outgrow it all.
That may be the case for some, but unfortunately, not for most. Childhood obesity is real and it has taken on epidemic proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), weight problems plague twice as many children and four times as many adolescents than just a generation ago. One in three is now diagnosed as overweight or obese before the age of 18.
We are not helpless in the face of this crisis. Enough information on how to address the underlying problems is available. We know what to do. What we need is to be clear-sighted and determined to take the necessary steps that can reverse these trends.
There are multiple obvious culprits we know contribute to childhood obesity. Poor diets consisting of fast food and sugary drinks are among them. So is lack of exercise and physical education (PE) in schools. None of these issues are isolated or occur in a vacuum, and I have written plenty about many of them and how they connect with one another.
But foremost -- and this cannot be overemphasized -- it is the parents who must act as gatekeepers. They are the ones who ultimately control what goes into their children's mouths. If there is junk food in the house, the kids will eat it. If there are sodas, they will gulp them down. If these things are not brought home, the kids will not even develop a taste for them, let alone overindulge.
This is a choice all parents can make. Yes, healthy food can be more expensive and may not even be readily available everywhere. Yes, not all communities have parks, bike paths or swimming pools. Some may not even be safe enough for kids to play outside without supervision. But alternatives can be found and investments can be made if we only care enough.
The risks are too high and the damages too serious to ignore what's at stake here. The children who fall prey to these diseases will never live their lives to the fullest and will probably succumb far too soon. For them this is nothing short of a nightmare. It doesn't have to be this way. It must not.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
MORE ON HUFFPOST:
These kids are even more likely to become obese adults.
According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17% (or 12.5 million) of kids and adolescents aged 2 - 19 years in the United States are now obese.
The rate among this age group increased from 5% to 10.4% in 1976-1980 and 2007-2008.
Obese kids are more likely to also be obese as adults, which puts them at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and more adult health problems.
CDC data shows that there was an increase in the pervasiveness of obesity in the American population between 1976-1980 and then again from 1999-2000, the prevalence of obesity increased.
Obesity in low-income 2- to 4-year-olds rose from 12.4% of the population in 1998 to 14.5% in 2003 but increased to 14.6% in 2008.
And only 25% of kids in this age group get the recommended three daily serving of vegetables. One way to make sure your child gets the amount of fruit and vegetables that they need is to serve them at every meal.
In 2011, only 29% of high-schoolers in a survey participated in 60 minutes of physical activity each day, which is the amount recommended by the CDC. It’s best for kids to get three different types of exercise: aerobic activity, like walking or running, muscle strengthening activities like push-ups or pull-ups and bone strengthening activities like jumping rope.
High blood pressure, diabetes and other cardiovascular issues have been previously tied to obesity. But a 2013 study found that obesity also puts kids at risk for other health issues such as ADHD, allergies and ear infections.
This number was documented by the FTC in 2008. According to the APA, there are strong associations between the increase in junk food advertising to kids and the climbing rate of childhood obesity.
Follow Timi Gustafson, R.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD