With nearly one-third of American children weighing in as overweight, childhood obesity is clearly a problem. Insulin resistance and childhood obesity is real. According to an article in the Pediatric Journal of Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 31.7% of US children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese and a growing number of those have insulin resistance.
What does this mean for our children, and what can we do as parents to keep our child(ren) from becoming part of this growing statistic?
What is Obesity and What Does It Mean For My Child?
Obesity is defined as a high body mass index. That is a measurement that is calculated based on height and weight. While not perfect, body mass index (BMI) does give a rough indication of whether a person is in a healthy weight range. When the body mass index is over 30, a person is considered obese. Here is the official BMI calculator.
The biggest problem with the BMI calculator is that it has no consideration of physical fitness built into it, even though muscle weighs more than fat. What this means is that someone who is 5’4” and weighs 160 lbs. will measure overweight.
If that weight is mostly adipose tissue, then they are overweight. But if this person is sturdily built and in good physical shape, most of the weight is actually muscle and they should not be considered overweight.
However, these issues with the BMI calculation apply largely for adults instead of children since few children are lifting weights or seriously working out. If a child’s weight and body composition is such that their BMI is over 30, that means they are carrying more fatty tissue than they need.
Insulin Resistance and Metabolic Syndrome
Many of the children who are overweight also have symptoms of insulin resistance. That is a chilling diagnosis for a child to receive. Insulin resistance puts a person at higher risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Even more troubling is the children who are showing up with the constellation of disorders that make up metabolic syndrome (also known as “syndrome X”).
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of health conditions that occur with and/or lead to insulin resistance, which is when cells don’t respond as they should to the hormone insulin. You can learn more about it here.
Insulin resistance causes blood sugar to stay high for longer than normal. Your body will store the excess energy as fat and not as glucose. In most cases a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome will be considered with at least 3 of the following:
- Obesity, especially abdominal fat
- High blood pressure (hypertension or treatment for hypertension)
- High blood sugar (elevated fasting blood glucose levels)
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels (high triglycerides)
A syndrome, by definition, is a description of a phenomenon, not a diagnosis. Metabolic syndrome is a descriptive term for a collection of health conditions that are likely to occur together. Having metabolic syndrome puts you at much higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Insulin resistance and metabolic disorder are among the so-called “lifestyle diseases” that used to show up in middle age, not in children. What is causing children to have “adult” disorders?
Causes of Insulin Resistance and Metabolic Syndrome
This is a much more accurate measurement than body mass index (BMI), because BMI as I mentioned earlier can be high in someone who is well-muscled and sturdily built but is not obese.
Total adiposity predicts the development of insulin resistance; scientists believe this is because fatty tissue releases hormones that hinder the insulin response.
To put it in horribly blunt words—it’s because we’re fat.
Being overweight or obese is the single biggest risk factor for insulin resistance and for metabolic disorder.
But why are we (and our kids) fat? Why are we so much fatter than previous generations of Americans?
The answer is SAD.
Studies show that a diet rich is saturated and trans fat and high in carbohydrates, with low fiber, increases the risk of becoming overweight and developign insulin resistance.
When you add in the effects of limited physical activity and less sleep, and consider the increased stress caused by social conditions such as bullying, it really isn’t surprising that more and more kids are gaining more and more weight.
There is Hope!
Yes, there really is hope!
If these are lifestyle diseases, that means that YOU hold the power to change your child’s life. The 2009 Consensus Conference on Insulin Resistance in Children determined that screening for insulin resistance in children with obesity is not recommended, but early prevention that includes diet and exercise is strongly recommended.
Here are three areas in which your choices and actions can make a significant difference in your child’s health, now and in the future.
Eating whole foods, real foods (not processed and highly preserved “food-like items”) and drinking plenty of pure water works best when it is a family endeavor.
Children learn what they see, and the best way to get your children to make healthy food choices is to show them what that looks like.
Begin with some simple and tasty swaps, like providing fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfast instead of toaster pastries, melting cheese over steamed veggies instead of over pasta, add some carrots to the mac-n-cheese, have flavored water instead of soda pop, and have a salad with dinner every night.
The point is not to reach some mythical state of perfection, but to shift habits in the direction of health. Continue to make changes at a rate that everyone can tolerate.
Learn to make a game out of trying new things, and allow yourself and the kids to say that they don’t care for something, but also keep it as a rule of thumb that everybody tries one bite.
After all, if you try something repeatedly (about forty times, on average) with the intent to learn to like it, your taste buds will physically change and you will begin to like the new food.
Diet may be the biggest contributor to obesity, but exercise, especially play, just might be the best cure. When you exercise or participate in vigorous physical activity, insulin resistance begins to drop almost immediately.
As your child builds muscle mass, metabolism improves, blood pressure drops, and weight loss becomes much easier.
Here are some great ways to build physical activity into you and your child’s life.
- Join a dance class
- Sign up for a local softball, football, or soccer team
- Shoot baskets together
- Go for a walk in the park
- Create a treasure hunt, indoors or out, and build in lots of walking and climbing
- Go swimming
- Dance to your favourite television or DVD program
- Go to the zoo
- Play mini golf as a family
- Try martial arts classes
- Join a water polo league
- Go rock climbing in a local gym
- Skip rocks at a nearby pond, lake, or creek
Of course, physical activity is easiest when children are not used to entertaining themselves with electronic and internet games and activities. You may (probably will!) get some resistance from your children about leaving their favourite electronic diversion and using their muscles.
Don’t expect little Miss Couch Potato to turn into an Olympic star overnight, but do keep adding fun physical activity into your routine, and show them how!
Sleep and Stress
Lack of sleep and high stress both cause abnormal levels of hormones such as cortisol, which are connected to blood sugar control and obesity, as well as high blood pressure (hypertension).
If that weren’t enough, sleepiness is often confused for hunger and stress eating is a very real thing; so being tired and stressed out is a perfect recipe for weight gain and blood sugar dysregulation.
Kids are getting less sleep and experiencing more stress than previous generations. The big-picture, society and world-wide explanations for that are complicated and controversial, so I’m not going to get into it here.
Instead, lets look at some of the things we can be changing in our homes and in our lives to make sleep easier and stress lower for ourselves and for our kids.
By the way, it is KEY to have this start with parents. If you model a life that is stressed-out and sleep-deprived, your children—who want to be like their parents—will conclude that stress and lack of sleep is cool and a very adult thing to do and be.
It sounds terrible now, but as a youngster I wanted to be stressed, because all the adult role models I had were stressed and I thought that was a grown-up thing to do. Yowzers.
So. What Can You Do?
Establish a soothing bedtime routine. This is as much for you as for them, because the routine will help you wind down and get to bed earlier so that you can be a good role model (and a less stressed parent!).
Include practical steps like tooth brushing and changing into pajamas, as well as bedtime stories, hugs, prayers, music, songs, or whatever works for your family.
Stop screen time at least one hour before lights out. The blue light activates the wake system in your brain and makes it difficult to fall asleep. For the same reason, don’t allow anyone to sleep with the television on. If you need music or white noise, use a radio or CD player.
Don’t sleep with phones. The EMF frequency messes with hormones and sleep cycles in ways we don’t yet understand. Having a rule that phones charge overnight in a room that is not the bedroom also helps prevent late night text, phone, or IM conversations, which automatically improves sleep time.
If they want to talk, take time to listen. Teens, especially, are most likely to begin to share in the evening. One of the most valuable gifts you can give them is to listen and share their struggles.
They don’t necessarily want or need you to fix the problem, but they do need you to listen to what is happening.
If stress is causing physical symptoms, such a stomach aches, headaches, or anxiety, time with a talk therapist or counselor is a good investment, for you or for the child. Learning good coping skills and thought patterns is far more effective than medication for most people.
Live Life JOYFULLY
The steps we’ve just covered—nutrition, activity, and sleep—are energizing steps toward a better and richer life. You must take insulin resistance and childhood obesity seriously.
Suddenly, the realization that your child is obese or overweight isn’t a sentence of poor health, but it’s actually a call to better health.
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Making good food choices is satisfying and fulfilling. Doing activities as a family is fun and improves relationships. Getting rid of stress and learning how to sleep better is good for everyone in the family.
Have you experience or do you know anyone that may have suffered from insulin resistance and childhood obesity. Share your thoughts below as I would love to hear your points of view. Go live life joyfully and Be Well!