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Where does childhood obesity start?

There are many factors that contribute to childhood obesity. Some children are genetically more prone to being overweight.
“It is now well established that overweight and the different forms of obesity are conditions tending to concentrate within a family. Obesity risk is two to eight times higher for a person with a family history as opposed to a person with no family history of obesity, and an even higher risk is observed in cases of severe obesity. Heritability of obesity may vary depending on the phenotype studied, however it tends to be higher for phenotypes linked to adipose tissue distribution (40-55%) and for weight or body fat excess (5-40%). Weight gain and adiposity increase with age, an effect also influenced by heredity.” (http://obesity.ulaval.ca/obesity/generalities/genetic.php)

For other children, it’s a matter of environmental, cultural and social factors.
In many cultures, children are over fed and encouraged to eat as a demonstration of love and nurturance. Have you ever heard a grandmother say-feed that child; He’s too skinny! Sometimes body fat is perceived as a sign of health and being loved. In many cultures, family gatherings are centered around eating and enjoying copious amounts of high fat, high calorie food. Food becomes associated with fun, love, gratification and if not moderated can set the path forward for future eating problems, obesity and health issues. Before we go further, let me say, this is not to blame, shame or otherwise make you feel badly if this represents how you live or grew up. This is to provide an understanding and an opportunity to examine our choices.

Childhood stress plays a huge factor in later life obesity. If a child is exposed to chronic levels of stress, there are changes in the brain that make them more prone to obesity and other chronic health conditions later in life. (see the Developingchild.harvard.edu for more info). Also, children under stress sometimes, learn to use food as a means of coping. This is often the start of emotional eating that carries into adulthood.
Children who are overweight are often the victims of bullying. Adults and other children can be brutal on the child who carries a lot of weight. This further damages a child’s self-esteem and then fuels the cycle of eating for comfort.

What can you do? First, start early by teaching healthy food habits. Avoid using food as rewards or a means of comfort. Mitigate the stress in your family, but also teach healthy coping skills when stress can’t be avoided. Change how your family relates to food. It’s fine to enjoy it, but don’t let it be the focus of your life. Be a role model for your child. Change your food habits, deal with your emotional eating, and your child will follow suit.

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Center for Child Development
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