Despite campaigns to bring awareness to the public, the statistics of childhood obesity are staggering. In 2016, 18.5% of children ages 2-19 were considered obese. Today, an even more shocking number reveals that 14% of children between the age of 2 and 5 are obese. The numbers are even worse for preteens and high school students. There are a number of factors that affect childhood obesity and without a doubt, changes need to be made to protect our children and encourage a healthy lifestyle. But avoiding excess weight is not the main goal. Obesity at any age can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol issues, and chronic disease. Now, we see those problems beginning at an early age due to the rise in childhood obesity. New research even indicates that nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is affecting children as a result of obesity.
What is NAFLD?
The most common form of chronic liver disease, NAFLD is an umbrella term meaning there is too much fat stored in liver cells. The liver becomes inflamed and can cause irreparable damage even if you do not drink alcohol. Initially, there are no symptoms of NAFLD which causes difficulty when diagnosing. But as fat content in the liver increases, signs pointing to NAFLD include an enlarged liver, fatigue, and pain in the abdomen. If untreated, NAFLD can lead to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, a more serious form of the disease, or cirrhosis—extreme scarring. If NAFLD progresses, you may experience abdominal swelling, enlarged spleen, breasts, and blood vessels. Red palms and jaundice are also common signs of severe liver disease. In 20% of adult cases, cirrhosis occurs and can result in liver cancer or liver failure. While the exact cause of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is unknown and doctors are still trying to determine why steatohepatitis and cirrhosis occur, obesity has been confirmed as the greatest risk factor for this potentially fatal disease.
NAFLD in Children
According to a recent study, NAFLD is now affecting 10-20% of pediatric patients and is projected to be the leading cause of liver failure in children and adolescents within the next 10 years. While the research explores various age groups of children in America who died from liver disease, the most eye-opening data discovered that NAFLD was prevalent in 70% of obese and overweight children compared to the 7% of children with a normal weight. In adult cases of NAFLD, complications such as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis and cirrhosis are slow to occur, but in children, liver disease appears to be more aggressive. The research also indicates that the first three years of a child’s life will impact their risk for NAFLD. Genetics, environment, and metabolic factors play a role in the development of excess fat in the body.
At any age, there are lifestyle habits that, once formed, can help to prevent obesity. Beginning these habits at an early age can not only prevent childhood obesity but obesity as an adult as well. A healthy diet is crucial to maintaining a normal weight. Many children do not consume the recommended amount of fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead, their diet consists of heavily processed foods, bread, pizza, pasta, and added sugar. Added sugar found in soda, ketchup, breakfast cereal, and other snacks make up the majority of a child’s total calorie consumption. Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle is crucial in promoting overall health. Limit the amount of time a child spends watching television, playing video games, or staring at a screen. Currently, most children in America spend eight or more hours watching television and are not encouraged to go outside and exercise. The recommended amount of time for a child to spend in front of a screen is a maximum of two hours. Inactivity can lead to insulin resistance which often leads to an unhealthy weight and even cause diabetes. Foster an atmosphere of exercise and healthy eating in your home to protect your child from an unhealthy life and exposure to dangerous diseases.
If you are concerned about your child’s overall health, weight, or gastrointestinal issues, schedule an appointment at GI Associates today. We have a pediatric department with skilled physicians that are specifically trained to treat children and will do their best to put your child at ease while determining a treatment plan that is best for your family.