Obesity has become a significantly increasing problem in teens and adolescents in recent years. Dietary habits and lifestyle has remarkably changed. After school, many adolescents rest near the television while doing homework or sit for hours in front of a computer, sustaining that activity with high-calorie junk foods.

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Between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese. Unhealthy weight gain due to poor diet and lack of exercise is responsible for over 300,000 deaths each year, and the annual cost to society for obesity is estimated at nearly $100 billion. The importance of confronting this issue can hardly be overstated as studies have shown that an obese child between the ages of 10 and 13 has an 80 percent chance of becoming an obese adult.

A child or teen is considered obese when their weight is 10 percent higher than what is recommended for their height and body type. Various factors such as environment, genetics, metabolism, eating habits and lifestyle play a significant role in developing obesity among the adolescents.

Some of the common causes of obesity in children and adolescents are poor eating habits, lack of exercise, overeating or binging, family and peer problems, family history of obesity, certain medications such as steroids, some psychiatric medications, low self-esteem, depression, emotional problems and stressful life events such as divorce of parents, death of beloved one, or abuse.  Children of obese parents are at higher risk to develop obesity. If both parents are overweight, there is an 80% chance of that child developing obesity. There are certain medical conditions such as endocrine and neurological problems, which can also contribute to the problem.

Fast-food consumption has increased in the United States over the past three decades. Eating frequent fast food meals causes teens and young adults to gain more weight and face an increased risk of developing insulin resistance according to the results of a study funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute(NHLBI).*

“Obesity and diabetes are on the rise in this country and this important study highlights the value of healthy eating habits,” said NHLBI Acting Director Barbara Alving, M.D.

After 15 years, those who ate at fast-food restaurants more than twice each week compared to less than once a week had gained an extra ten pounds and had a two-fold greater increase in insulin resistance, a risk factor for Type II diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease. One reason for the weight gain may be that a single meal from one of these restaurants often contains enough calories to satisfy a person’s caloric requirement for an entire day.

“It’s extremely difficult to eat in a healthy way at a fast-food restaurant. Despite some of their recent healthful offerings, the menus still tend to include foods high in fat, sugar and calories and low in fiber and nutrients,” said lead author Mark Pereira, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. People need to evaluate how often they eat meals at fast-food restaurants and think about cutting back, according to Pereira.

NHLBI’s Gina Wei, M.D. offers these tips when dining at a fast food restaurant:

  • Ask for the nutritional content. Know what you are eating.
  • Choose salads and grilled foods whenever possible.
  • Keep portion sizes small.
  • Get high-fat sauces and condiments, such as sald dressing and mayo, on the side.

There Is Progress

It’s not all bad news. There is progress being made to influence children and teens toward a healthier lifestyle and diet.

The fast food chains are making some changes. McDonald’s has hired Oprah’s trainer, and Wendy’s is allowing kids to substitute milk for soda and fruit for fries. Taco Bell has also introduced a few healthy alternatives to their menu options.

Food giant Kraft, one of America’s largest and best known food companies, is reformulating their products to get rid of trans fats, reduce portion size and create a healthier product profile. Frito-Lay introduced “Smart Snacks” under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Cooper (best known for his heart saving work at his Cooper Clinic in Texas) with a nutritional profile that has no transfats, less than 1.5 grams of fat and less than 120 calories per serving.

School systems throughout the country are taking proactive steps in making positive changes and loading vending machines with healthier snacks.

Obesity is a serious medical issue that effects not only adults, but adolescents. Many children suffer from obesity because of inherited medical conditions, but also due to parental influences. Even with the pressures of television and fast food restaurants, it is possible to teach children about healthy diets and the importance of daily physical activity. If parents take responsibility and maintain their own healthy lifestyles, they can instill healthy habits and ways of thinking in their children. A healthy lifestyle started at an early age can prevent serious medical conditions that stem from obesity.