Obese kids are at higher risk for mental illness — what are we going to do about it?

A twenty year cohort study in The Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Psychiatry looked at overweight and obese children and their risk of developing of a mental illness later in life. The research found that obese and overweight children have an increased risk for the development of a mood disorder in adulthood when the same overweight trends continued. The research included both sexes; however overweight and obese girls were found to have an even higher risk than boys for developing mood disorders and other mental health issues when the obesity continued on into adulthood. 

A first of its kind, the research looks at the psychiatric risk factors associated with obesity and overweight children. While more research is needed—one conclusion can be made. Obesity in American youth is a risk factor for the development of a mental disorder later in life.

Some states around the nation have begun to tackle the issue—to reverse this dangerous trend in American consumption.

Campaigns around the nation are popping up hoping to reverse the trend of childhood obesity and its deleterious effects on mental health. One such campaign exists in Maine called “Let’s Go”—using the slogan 5-2-1-0 Everyday: Five or more fruits or vegetables, two hours or less recreational screen time, one hour or more of physical activity and zero sugary drinks (more water and low fat milk please!!) Similar campaigns are being promoted in New York and Florida utilizing the same concept.

In an issue of Pediatrics for Parents, Dr. Rush-Wilson explores ways that parents can prevent unhealthy eating habits and the obesity epidemic in their families. Dr. Rush-Wilson’s suggestions parallel those of the voluntary proposal aforementioned; regarding advertising, salt, fat and sugar content in the diets of American youth. But more—the article looks at helping children develop a healthy relationship to food, their bodies, and self-image.

Here are some highlights—

1)    Speak openly about healthy food choices. Help the youngsters understand the difference between advertised unhealthy food and other healthy choices. Communication is key.

2)    Planning and preparing meals is exceptionally important; from a young age. Children become acquainted with food and develop a different relationship; more appreciative of the growing and preparing processes involved in meal preparation.

3)    Have open conversations about the healthy and unhealthy attitudes and uses of food with kids. Speak to the reasons that eating is ok; and increase awareness when eating is being used as a coping mechanism, or for other emotional reasons.

4)    Part of healthy eating and healthy living involves physical activity. Parents should lead by example and encourage physical activity as a way to be healthier, release stress and emotion and as a way to connect and become more aware of one’s body.

The nation wide obesity health crisis is frightening and undoubtedly affects all areas of life. Legislation, healthier habits, and more awareness are keys in helping reverse the lethal trend. The future mental health of children depends on it.

— Liz Schreiber

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