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Childhood Obesity: The Psychological and Physical Effects

February 12, 2015

21 million children and teenagers, roughly one-third of America’s young people, are overweight or obese. While the physical effects of obesity are serious, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, many doctors worry about the psychological effects on obese children even more.

Sabrina Register: Twice a day, Tana Denmark guts it out in the gym.

It’s a routine of sweat and sore muscles this high school junior and her mom Julie stick to, determined not to relive years of a different kind of pain.

Julie and Tana Denmark 'gut' it out in the gym to improve their health and self-esteem. Tana has lost and kept off 25 pounds since she started exercising.

Julie Denmark: It’s heartbreaking when something happens to your kid and there’s really nothing you can do

Register: Tana has carried extra weight since elementary school but it wasn’t until middle school that those unwanted pounds took their toll.

Tana Denmark: I was pretty much thinking about it all the time. I had this big gloomy cloud that I felt like that I had this issue that separated me from a lot of my friends and stuff. They all go waterski out on the lake and they’d all be in swimsuits and I’d be in a tee shirt and shorts because it was so embarrassing.

Tana said started to feel self conscious about her weight during middle school.

Register: Tana is far from alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 21 million teenagers, roughly one third of America’s young people, are overweight or obese and at risk for cardiovascular disease, prediabetes, and bone and joint pain. And the long term effects? Increased risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and several types of cancer including breast, colon, pancreatic, ovarian, cervical, and prostate. First lady Michelle Obama  has tried to tackle the problem with her Let’s Move campaign. But despite her efforts, and widespread media reporting, when it comes to childhood obesity, little has changed in the last ten years.

Pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson worries, not only about the physical, but also the psychological effects of childhood obesity.

Wendy Sue Swanson: In the last decade, we haven’t seen a big change in obese rates, that’s good. We haven’t seen them go way up, but we certainly haven’t seen them great progress and seen them go down and so we haven’t cracked the code.

Register: Pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson says while the physical effects of obesity are very serious, it’s the psychological effects she worries about the most.

Swanson: We don’t live in a culture that is kind to people who are overweight.

Tana Denmark: I got teased a little bit in middle school about my weight which is the reason the depression came. It’s not just the weight. It’s more and it’s not like, “Oh you have a little bit of chub” no, it’s more than that.

Register: Dr. Robert Pretlow has been studying childhood obesity for 15 years.

Robert Pretlow: Obese children are affected by poor self-esteem, guilt, tremendous shame, depression, teasing, bullying. There have been studies that have shown that the quality of life for obese children is significantly lower. As a matter of fact, the quality of life rating for severely obese children is at the same level as young people with cancer on chemotherapy.

Register: And Pretlow says the stigma of obesity makes it even more difficult.

Pretlow: You don’t just walk up to a class mate and say “Can I talk to you about being 100, 200 pounds overweight?" That’s just not done.

Register: So Pretlow created a website called Weigh2rock as well as a weight loss support app called W8loss2go. Both contain, among other tools, chat rooms where youth around the world can share what they’re going through with others who can relate.

In order to help children talk about their weight, Dr. Robert Pretlow created Weigh2rock, an online forum where kids can share their experiences.

Emily: Once I got to middle school, everyone made fun of me for it and it sucks. I don’t know what to do about it. They just don’t get that I’m trying.

Ryan: I’m more than 50 pounds overweight. What’s even worse is that I constantly need to buy new clothes to accommodate my 40 inch waist.

Nia: I know I am probably the heaviest person to use this site, but I am really getting to a hard time. I can’t figure out a way to lose weight. I can barely walk, my belly hangs past my knees so I have a lot of back pain. I can’t find any clothes that fit.

Swanson: What we have to start thinking about is that this is not an individual problem. This is a cultural problem.

Register: A culture, Swanson says, where food companies spend millions to advertise to Americans, even the youngest consumers, despite pledges to fight childhood obesity.

Swanson: They may be thinking about children’s health but this a free market economy and they’re thinking about selling whether it’s sugary water or fast food.

Register: Many doctors also take aim at school lunches. In 2007, the federal government recommended nutritional changes for school meals like low fat milk, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables. But one in 5 kids still attends a middle school that hasn’t adopted the changes. And even before they get to school, a child’s best intentions to lose weight and get healthy can be derailed.

In 2007, many school started making the change to healthy lunches, with low fat milk and vegetables.

Pretlow: There was a 280 pound 13-year-old boy in one of our studies who was attempting to control his portions by packing his lunch for school, taking it with him and his mom insisted on putting candy treats in his lunch. I said “Could you not do that?” and she said, “That’s my thing”.

Swanson: You can’t expect a teenager to eat healthy if the cupboard is full of food and soda right? So parents are responsible for providing good choices.

Register: Tana and Julie have replaced sweetened lattes with lunges, and donuts with dumb bells. But Julie admits it’s difficult.

Julie Denmark: It’s so hard because we’re so hard wired to reward ourselves with something sweet and it’s just so much a part of us. Food comforts us. It’s much more than nourishment.

Register: While Tana continues to shed pounds through good food choices, portion control, and exercise, the success stories among America’s overweight and obese youth are few and far between.

Swanson: Our life expectancy will decrease not increase if we don’t get a handle on this in the next few decades.

Pretlow: If one third of our young people had developed asthma as a result of air pollution, we’d take drastic measures. Why is childhood obesity any different?



Made possible in part by

Sabrina Register

Sabrina Register is an award-winning journalist who has been covering stories that are relevant and matter to the people of the Northwest for close to 20 years. A graduate of Vanderbilt University with a concentration in political science, Sabrina began her television career in Mississippi. After spending two years reporting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sabrina moved to Seattle in the mid-1990’s to cover news of the Northwest. Sabrina’s awards include top recognition from the Associated Press and the prestigious Edward R. Murrow award for investigating reporting.

More stories by Sabrina Register

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Speaking of asthma, has anyone looked into the possible connection between kids who are prescribed steroidal asthma-prevention medications and obesity? I know it wouldn't explain why a full third of kids are overweight, but I think it's a contributing factor.

As a pediatrician member of the American Academy of Pediatrics national task force on obesity 10 years ago, and the Academy's representative to the recent Robert Wood Johnson expert panel on food marketing definitions for the industry I have a few comments. To not address food marketing except for one off the cuff comment by Wendy, a culture, Swanson says, where food companies spend millions to advertise to Americans, even the youngest consumers, despite pledges to fight childhood obesity, does not adequately convey the intentional contribution to children's weight gain from high fat, high salt, and low nutrition foods. I hope that in the future your program will impart media-teachable moments concerning similar media literacy issues.
Researchers are just now identifying that diet and exercise may not be a cure for obesity. Referencing epigenetics' role in identifying why some children are at (genetic) risk would have been important. If one parent is obese there is a greater than 50-60% chance the children will be as well. There is no question that we can blame the can and/or the couch, but the multimodal factors that result in obesity are still confusing to most people.

Really sir? My parents were fat because they EAT to much.. I am fat because I eat to much!!!! My children are not fat because I taught them how unhealthy I am and most of my family are.... Sure there may be some illness that contributes in some cases but I bet if we switched to real food and exercise even that in a child could be helped.....