What Causes Childhood Obesity in America? A Closer Look

what causes childhood obesity

Childhood obesity has risen dramatically over the past decade. Statistics reveal that 1 in 3 children in America are overweight.

What’s more, weight gain worsens through childhood. While 26% of 2- to 5-year-olds are overweight, this number shoots up to 41.5% among 16- to 19-year-olds. 

Childhood obesity is increasing around the world. But the US stands out as the country with the highest obesity rates among children. Currently, the number of overweight children in America is double that of the world average. 

This begs the question, what causes childhood obesity, and why is it such an issue here in the US?

Are you’re wondering what causes obesity in children? Continue reading as we break down the contributing factors, as well as why childhood obesity is so dangerous. 

High Consumption of Processed Foods

One of the leading causes of childhood obesity is the increased consumption of highly processed foods. 

Reports show that Americans across all ages are eating more highly processed foods than ever. In 2001-2002, research shows 53.5% of calories consumed by Americans were from processed foods. By 2017-1018 this number rose to 57%. 

Unfortunately, kids are even more likely to consume highly refined foods than adults. Researchers found that in 2018, 67% of the calories consumed by children came from processed foods. 

Not only are processed foods typically low in nutrition and fiber, but they are also very calorie-dense. Processed food items generally contain high amounts of added sugar, as well as refined carbohydrates. 

Studies on childhood consumption of sugar revealed that high sugar intake starts early on in childhood. The average toddler eats more sugar than is recommended as safe for an adult. Given that toddlers’ bodies are far smaller and more sensitive, this is an alarming finding. 

Sugar is known to be highly addictive, which makes it a key ingredient in the obesity cycle in children. The more sugar children consume when young, the more likely they are to crave processed foods that contain high levels of added sugar. 

Too Many Unhealthy Snacks

Another alarming trend in children’s diets is an increase in unhealthy snack consumption. Not only are kids in the US eating more processed foods in their meals, but they are also consuming more processed snacks than ever before. 

Reports have uncovered that chips, candy, soft drinks, and other junk food now make up 27% of children’s daily calorie intake. 

It’s common knowledge that junk food can be a significant contributing factor to weight gain. Junk food typically contains high levels of fat, refined carbohydrates, and added sugar. It’s also usually devoid of nutrients, protein, and fiber. 

Because of this, junk food snacks are not satiating. The lack of fiber and protein, combined with refined sugars and carbs, can spike blood sugar levels. This inevitably leads to a blood sugar crash. 

Exacerbated drops in blood sugar can lead to a lack of energy and food cravings. 

Soft Drinks

Another of the top obesity causes in the US is soft drink consumption. Analysis shows that 30% of children in the US consume 2 or more sugary drinks per day. 

Soft drinks contain little to no nutritional value. As well as various chemical preservatives and artificial flavorings. However, their most dangerous ingredient is probably sugar. 

A can of cola contains 39 grams of sugar. Children between the ages of 7-9 shouldn’t consume more than 24 grams of free sugar in a day. Two cans of cola add up to almost three times this amount. 

High intakes of sugar are linked to weight gain. Exceeding recommended sugar intake levels is also associated with type 2 diabetes. 

A Lack of Exercise

Diet isn’t the only contributor to the obesity pandemic. American children are getting less exercise than ever before and becoming increasingly sedentary. 

Exercise is an important part of good health and weight maintenance for just about everyone. But it’s particularly crucial for kids.

Authorities recommend that children receive at least one hour of moderate to intense physical activity per day. Survey results reveal that 74% of children between the ages of 5 to 10 years old in the US fall short of this guideline. 

One of the underlying causes for this is increased screen time. As well as fewer extracurricular activities and reduced time spent outdoors. 

The same survey uncovered that 74% of parents choose to spend family time with their kids watching television. A further 53% said that they spend leisure time with their children playing video games. 41% reported cutting back on extracurricular activities due to their cost. 

Too Much Screen Time

Pandemic conditions exacerbated the lack of exercise among children. However, this has been a growing trend even before the pandemic lockdowns. Statistics indicate that one of the biggest causes is increased screen time.

Currently, the average child in the US spends up to 3 hours watching television, and the total average screen time is around 5-6 hours.

Genetic Predisposition

If you’re wondering what causes childhood obesity, it’s not always just diet and exercise. It could be genes as well. 

Studies suggest overweight parents might pass down a genetic predisposition to obesity. According to one study, children of obese parents were more likely to also be overweight or obese. 

The researchers concluded that this wasn’t just a result of environmental factors and shared eating habits.

However, this doesn’t mean that children from obese parents cannot maintain healthy weight levels. Through diet modifications and healthy habits, most children of obese parents can lose weight and achieve healthy weight maintenance. 

Lower Income Levels

Another common factor that can often be linked to child obesity in America is low household income levels. 

Income plays into childhood obesity in a number of ways. For one, low-income families may have less healthy eating habits than higher-income families. Reports state that low-income households tend to consume fewer fruits and vegetables and more high-sugary beverages. 

In higher-income households, there is also more money available for after-school activities. Participation in these usually means kids spend less time watching television and playing video games.

Higher-income households are also more likely to have a stay-at-home parent. In some cases, this might mean that children get more one-on-one attention, which could result in less screen time. 

A Lack of Extra-Curricular Activities

As we mentioned above, survey results show a correlation between fewer extra-curricular activities and childhood obesity. 

A lot of extra-curricular activities involve increased movement. Activities like sports, dance, and gymnastics can be a source of moderate-to-high intensity exercise.

The fewer of these activities children do, the higher the chance of them not receiving enough physical activity. 

Too Little Sleep

If you’re wondering what causes obesity in children, lack of sleep is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. 

However, too little sleep has been linked to weight gain. The reason for this is that sleep deprivation increases the release of hormones related to appetite and satiety.

If children don’t get enough sleep, their bodies are likely to produce higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone, and leptin is responsible for triggering feelings of fullness. 

Because of this, a lack of sleep can lead to overeating, poor food choices, and cravings. 

Now you might be thinking, but surely sleep deprivation isn’t what causes childhood obesity? Surely kids are more than likely to get enough sleep?

Unfortunately, researchers have found that more than half of children in the US aren’t getting enough sleep. Some of the main reasons for this are social media use and screen time which stimulates the brain’s “wake centers.”

Blue light from screens and electronics is also increasingly associated with sleep problems. 

Stress

Another cause of obesity in America—that you’d assume would be confined to adults—is stress. Stress has been on the rise in the US for a while. But high-stress levels are usually associated with busy adults leading hectic 21st-century lives.

Unfortunately, adults aren’t the only ones suffering under the effects of stress. Kids are also experiencing heightened levels of stress, sometimes more than their parents. 

According to survey results children between the ages of 8 and 17 report worrying about doing well in school, getting into college, and their family’s finances. They also reported experiencing headaches, sleeplessness, and upset stomaches—all common symptoms of stress. 

One of the less obvious, more hidden effects of stress is weight gain. Stress causes the body to release cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol can trigger excess insulin release. Which can result in blood sugar drops, increased hunger, and sugar cravings.

What’s more, research has also shown that our metabolisms slow down during periods of stress and heightened cortisol. This makes it harder for us to burn off any extra calories we might consume through stress-eating. 

Taken all together, this makes stress yet another potential contributing factor for childhood obesity. 

Eating Disorders

One of the most worrying obesity causes in children is eating disorders. News reports have been warning parents about a sharp rise in eating disorders in children. 

If left untreated, eating disorders can be fatal. 

In many cases, victims suffer from severe malnutrition and restrict calories to the point of starvation and emaciation. 

However, there are also many sufferers on the other end of the scale. Ones who don’t shed weight, but instead gain it through things like binge eating and yo-yo dieting. 

Often, victims of disordered eating silently battle their relationship with food on a constant basis. Instead of focusing on health, they try to restrict their calorie intake, only to fall prey to the trap of a starvation diet/binging cycle. 

A disordered relationship with food can erode sensitivity to hunger and fullness signals. Instead of being able to eat when hungry and stop when full, suffers are more prone to overeating, and then restricting calories severely out of guilt. Severe calorie and food restriction then lead to extreme hunger, triggering excessive eating once more. 

The Dangers of Childhood Obesity

Now that we’ve covered what causes childhood obesity in the US, let’s quickly examine why the current obesity rates in children are so dangerous. 

Childhood obesity has been linked to a variety of chronic conditions. These include:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatty liver disease

You might be questioning to what degree childhood obesity in America is actually triggering these diseases in kids. Surely it’s quite rare? Unfortunately, this is not the case.

As outlined in an article from Time Magazine titled Young Kids, Old Bodies, doctors are witnessing these diseases more and more in children, and at increasingly young ages. Children in their teens are on liver medication, insulin injections, blood pressure medication, and more. 

Health practitioners are now prescribing children medications that drug developers didn’t intend for anybody under 40. 

What’s also concerning is the long-term implications these diseases have on children’s lives. Instead of looking forward to good health and high levels of productivity in their 20s and 30s, these children face a bleak outlook, one that includes reliance on dialysis machines and ongoing medication.

Besides triggering chronic health conditions, childhood obesity has also been linked to accelerated aging. 

Microscopes reveal tissue damage and chromosome wear in obese children commonly only seen in middle-aged people and seniors. As well as oxidative and inflammatory damage usually only witnessed in older people who lived indulgent lives.

In short, children’s bodies are aging rapidly under the strain of childhood obesity. 

Now That You Know What Causes Childhood Obesity

If you were wondering what causes childhood obesity, the basic triggers are poor diets and a lack of exercise. Rising levels of sleep deprivation and stress among children are adding fuel to the childhood obesity fire.

What’s more, childhood obesity doesn’t just result in bullying and reduced self-esteem. Overweight children are at risk of developing chronic diseases at an early age. Ones that see them having to take strong medications that were initially only designed for middle-aged adults and seniors. 

Get the Help Your Child Needs

Are you reading this article on what causes childhood obesity because a young person in your family is suffering from weight-related issues? If so, you need to take action. But, it has to be the right kind of action. 

Simply telling a child they need to lose weight and eat less can spark deep-seated relationship issues with food and disordered eating.

Instead, we would advise that you turn to your pediatrician for support and guidance. 

UnCraveRx® is passionate about helping Americans successfully fight obesity. We are here to guide and support you every step of the way. 

With UnCraveRx®, you will gain access to lifestyle behavior support. As well as a store of on-demand resources, a food tracker, nutritional coaching, and more. 

Take the first step to enhanced health and find an UnCraveRx® provider today. 

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