Medical experts say childhood obesity is now one of the most serious challenges of public health, particularly in urban areas.
The World Health Organisation defines the condition as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health.
The issue has grown to epidemic proportions, with over four million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese, a 2017 report by the Global Burden of Disease showed.
The WHO notes that the rate of overweight and obesity continue to grow among adults and children.
“Obesity is one side of the double burden of malnutrition and today, more people are obese than underweight in every region, except sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
“Once considered a problem only in high-income countries, overweight and obesity are now dramatically on the rise in low and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. The vast majority of overweight or obese children live in developing countries, where the rate of increase has been more than 30 per cent higher than that of developed countries,” the WHO report adds.
Three researchers, Drs. Oluwafunmilayo Adeniyi, Gabriel Fagbenro and Foluke Olatona, in a 2020 report, noted that the rate of childhood obesity in some developing countries was as high as that of developed countries.
They added that children in low and middle-income countries were exposed to high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, energy-dense, and micronutrient-poor foods, which were lower in cost but also, lower in nutrient quality.
For the medics, these dietary patterns, in conjunction with lower levels of physical activity, result in a sharp increase in obesity in children.
Watching television and staying idle indoors were the prevalent sedentary activities among obese children. These were identified as trigger factors for overweight, and if not controlled, might lead to obesity.
Children, who walked to or from school, were classified into a higher physical activity category than those who used transport to travel to school.
A public health researcher, Tomiwa Oba, believes that excessive weight gain during childhood can result from several factors, adding that parental influence on the feeding habits of children and dietary intake are important, among others.
“Feeding children with calorie-dense foods/fast foods and rewarding good behaviour with food are known to contribute significantly to childhood obesity,” Oba warns.
Two medical researchers, I.O. Senbanjo and E.A. Adejuyigbe, in an article titled, ‘Prevalence of overweight and obesity in Nigerian preschool children’ warn that parents play a crucial role in the formation of dietary habits and patterns of physical activity in children, thus failure of parents to recognise obesity constitutes a significant barrier to its prevention.
“There is a need for continuous education and advocacy concerning healthy diet and other preventive strategies against childhood obesity in Lagos, and potentially other parts of the developing world,” the researchers say.
A senior lecturer at the Department of Public Health, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Imo State, Dr E.T. Oparaocha, says, “Although causes of obesity differ intrinsically among nations, the health outcomes appear to be similar, which include renal, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, respiratory and neurological disorders, as well as psychological and emotional problems.
“Identified causes in Nigeria include among others, shifts in lifestyle and behaviour, medication, cultural beliefs, taboos, food habits and choices as well as the genetic makeup of individuals.”
“Suggested approaches towards control would include timely intervention, health education, lifestyle modification; a shift in bogus beliefs and taboos, as well as change in food habit and food preferences. The role of parents and the media in the control of childhood obesity will also be highlighted,” he added.
Another medical doctor, Dr Jennifer Chudi-Emokai, believes that obesity is more prevalent now due to ‘environmental and lifestyle preferences’.
She says, “In Nigeria, there has been significant progress in improving childhood nutrition. This is due to the intake of our traditional diets with a high intake of cereals and vegetables and a low intake of animal foods as compared to the Western pattern of nutrition, which comprise high intake of animal foods and high energy dent food.”
Speaking of the risk factors, Emokai says a child’s diet is a ‘very big risk factor’.
She notes that regular intake of high calorie-like fast foods, snacks, sugary drinks and juice, contribute to weight gain and obesity in children.
“Lack of exercise is a contributory factor too, especially in children who spend their time watching TV and playing video games. They’re likely to become obese. This is due to the sedentary activity or lifestyle. There’s the family factor as well. If a child comes from a family of overweight people, they’re more likely to put on weight.
“There’s the socio-economic factor where there’s lack of access to fresh and healthy foods. This can contribute to obesity in children. There are a few cases where some medical illnesses contribute to this,” she adds.
The medical doctor explains that obesity in children is hereditary and about five per cent of childhood obesity is caused by hereditary or defective genes.
She says “One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the eating and exercise habits of the entire family.”