(Kiran Tariq, Karachi)

Childhood obesity is not a cosmetic issue or something the child will just grow out of. Obese children tend to become obese adults, and there are many medical issues associated with obesity. Children are now taking the same type of medications as their parents to manage blood pressure, diabetes and  cholesterol. This is frightening but true. Over the past 30 years, the rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents.

The prevalence of obesity in children aged 6-11 years increased from 7% in 1980 to 18% in 2012, while the percentage of obese adolescents aged 12-19 years soared from 5% to 21% in the same period. These significant increases have led to a rise in obesity-related health conditions among children and  adolescents. A 2007 population-based survey of 5-17-year-olds revealed that around 70% of obese children and adolescents have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and it has been well established that the condition can increase the risk of musculoskeletal diseases, diabetes and cancer.

The effects of childhood obesity can persist well into adulthood, and there is global concern that if rates of childhood obesity continue to rise, so will the prevalence of related medical conditions. This will not only put the health of future generations at risk, but it will also put an enormous strain on the economy. There is no doubt that the main causes of childhood obesity are an unhealthy diet and lack of physical  activity.The availability of liquid calories and empty calories, combined with a deluge of fast food and junk food advertisements, have changed the way children eat. The majority of children fail to meet the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity and spend a huge amount of time sitting.
The way we've structured our daily lives makes it hard for children to live healthily.

It is clear that lifestyle changes have had a significant impact on childhood obesity over the past 30 years. Children used to consume one snack a day, while 1 in 5 school-age children now eats up to six snacks a day. Food and drink portion sizes are also bigger than they were 30 years ago.Levels of physical activity have also reduced over the past 3 decades.The health care experts believe that it is primarily unhealthy diets and lack of exercise that have caused rates of childhood obesity to soar.

In such situation parents need to ensure that their children adopt healthier lifestyles. Parents should be talking with their child's pediatrician about how to attain a healthy weight and make healthier choices with their child - even if the pediatrician doesn't bring it up. Parents are the best advocates for their childrenParents can play a role by speaking up at PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences, advocating for healthier meals in daycares and schools, and demanding that the places children visit, such as schools and parks, are promoting healthy eating and physical activity. There is certainly an onus on schools to do more to encourage children to adopt healthy behaviors. Schools have a responsibility to create a safe, supportive place where the healthy choice must be the easy choice.

These guidelines require schools to have a higher offering of whole-grain rich foods, offer only fat-free or low-fat milk products, offer fruits and vegetables to all students every day of the week.

Schools play a very critical role in encouraging healthy behaviors in children. Many children spend a significant amount of time at school where both good and bad habits can develop. Physical activity and health education should be mandatory for those in kindergarten through high schools.

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