Poor eating habits; exposure to thousands of food ads each year; the ready availability of high-calorie junk food; increased time at the computer, TV, and other sedentary activities; and less time exercising. We’re all familiar with the causes of teen obesity. Are we as familiar with the consequences?

Nationally, obesity rates for American teens have doubled in the last 30 years. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, between 16 and 33 percent of American children and teens currently are obese. According to The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, 20 percent of our sixth graders are obese; another 18 percent are overweight. And statistics indicate that the majority of these kids will remain obese as adults, perpetuating another overweight generation. That’s because, if both parents are overweight, there’s an 80 percent chance their kids will be, too.

But as First Lady Michelle Obama (for whom fighting obesity is a priority) told the National Restaurant Association in 2010, we can break the cycle: "We can make a commitment to promote vegetables and fruits and whole grains on every part of every menu. We can make portion sizes smaller and emphasize quality over quantity. And we can help create a culture—imagine this—where our kids ask for healthy options instead of resisting them."

Physically Unfit

In terms of physical health, excess weight can cause both short- and long-term consequences: orthopedic problems, hypertension, heart disease, and breathing problems. Depression and other psychological problems are common in overweight teens, who also have a greater risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes than their peers of normal weight.

Then there’s the potential for liver damage from carrying too much fat. The American Liver Foundation estimates that 2 to 5 percent of American children over the age of 5, nearly all obese or overweight, have a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. A handful of obese teens have needed liver transplants as a result.

And since the majority of obese teens probably will remain obese as adults, more of them may need new livers by the time they’re in their 30s and 40s.

There's more, according to obesityhelp.com, “Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome occurs more frequently in obese children and has serious adverse effects on daytime learning and quality of life. More than 50 percent of all teens seeking bariatric surgery have this condition.

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"Obese children also are at increased risk of…skeletal complications and polycystic ovary syndrome. Risk of gynecologic and gastrointestinal malignancies also has been closely linked to obesity…” The implications for society's future health-care costs and lost productivity are staggering.

Social Studies

There are social ramifications, too. Overweight teens are more likely to be teased and ostracized than their classmates of normal weight. They’re less likely to be accepted to college, less likely to marry, and more likely to live at a lifelong lower socioeconomic level.

Overweight teens are more likey to be ostracized than their normal-weight peers.

And the prejudice starts early. According to the Obesity Society, “Children who are overweight and obese are targets of stigma and may be especially vulnerable to the consequences of bias. Negative attitudes towards obese youth develop in children as young as 3 years old, and children attribute multiple negative characteristics to overweight peers, including being mean, stupid, ugly, unhappy, lazy, and having few friends. Peers are common perpetrators of weight-related teasing and derogatory names, and school is a frequent venue where stigma occurs.

“In school settings, students who are overweight or obese can face harassment and ridicule from peers, as well as negative attitudes from teachers and other educators. At the college level, some research shows that qualified overweight students, particularly females, are less likely to be accepted to college than their normal-weight peers.”

Birds of a Feather

Researchers at the University of Southern California found that overweight youth were twice as likely to have overweight friends.

“Although this link between obesity and social networks was expected, it was surprising how strong the peer effect is and how early in life it starts,” says lead author Thomas Valente, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. “The findings certainly raise health concerns, because when kids start associating only with others who have a similar weight status, it can reinforce the negative behaviors that cause obesity.”

In addition to finding that overweight adolescents were more likely to have overweight friends than their normal-weight peers, the researchers also found overweight girls were more likely to name more friends, but less likely to be named as a friend than normal-weight girls.

“Researchers tend to focus mainly on health consequences when talking about weight with adolescents,” Valente says. “But we also need to be sensitive to the reality that there can be a social cost for overweight youth as well.”

What to Do?

Since children model what they see at home, that’s where parents must set the correct tone. One place to learn about lifestyle changes is at Mrs. Obama's initiative Let's Move, www.letsmove.gov. Further, according to Stephanie Rost, MS, RD, corporate program development manager of Weight Watchers International, parents should establish a “healthy-weight” home, “one in which everyone who lives there has a lifestyle that encourages them to be at a weight that is right and healthy for them.”

Rost says, “A healthy-weight home is not about putting your children on a diet. It embraces meals and snacks that focus on wholesome, nutritious foods and it includes treats. Activity plays a vital role. Because parents create the home for their families, they are the ‘change agents’ that make a healthy-weight home happen. This is done by surrounding the family with five simple rules, using a style that will make them last.”

The five rules of a healthy-weight home are:
• Have nutritious foods available.
• Allow treats in moderation to avoid temptation and over-compensation away from home.
• Limit non-homework “screen time” with the TV, computers, and video games to no more than two hours per day.
• Be active for an hour or more a day.
• Adopt an attitude that the whole family is in this together. “Everybody in the house has to follow the rules,” Rost says. “The skinny kid doesn’t get to eat ice cream while the other doesn’t.”


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