Growing up with too many kilos

Overweight of children and teenagers is an increasing problem in Germany. A big national study (KiGGS) says that about 1.9 million 3-17-year-olds are overweight. 800.000 of these boys and girls are obese (adipose).

Photo: iStock/Tatiana Mironenko

The KiGGS-study

The KiGGS-study of the Robert-Koch-Institute examined the physical and mental development of children and teenagers in Germany. KiGGS stands for children and youth health survey, which is initiated by the Federal Ministry of Health. The study was conducted from May 2003 to May 2006. In 167 study locations 17.641 young people up to 17 years had been examined. The focus was on physical complaints, chronic diseases and psychic health. Thanks to the study there are now national representative data available.

In Germany, 15 per cent of the children and teenagers from 3 to 17 years are overweight. Overweight in this age group is determined by the body-mass-index (BMI) and the percentiles. The latter are BMI curves of over 140,000 boys and girls which take gender and age into account. Compared with the reference numbers of obese children and youths in 1985 to 1999, there has been a surge of 50 per cent. About six per cent of the children and teenagers are adipose. This means, that 800.000 of the 1.9 million young people are obese.

The number of overweight children rises with age: Nine per cent of the 3-6-year-olds years have too much weight, but 15 per cent of the 7-10-year-olds are overweight and finally 17 per cent of the 14-17 year-old teenagers have too many kilos. According to these numbers, the adiposity rate of 14-17-year-old teenagers has tripled.

What are the causes for overweight of children and teenagers?

Our way of living plays a crucial role in the development of obesity in young people. In a family with low income or a low educational attainment there are more people with overweight. Also children from migrant families are more often obese. According to the study persons with high media consumption are more prone to be overweight. But there are also other factors. Lacking physical activity and malnutrition are very well-known causes for obesity. But also problems within families and a low family cohesion may promote overweight.

In addition to the living conditions also the genetic predisposition plays a role in adiposity. The study indicates, that children with an overweight or obese mother frequently become overweight, too.

The consequences of overweight are diverse. The early symptoms of obesity-related comorbidities are often found in children and teenagers, e.g. of dyslipidemia or disturbances in glucose metabolism, diabetes and hypertension. Furthermore, there are many young overweight people who are suffering because of teasing, prejudices, and stigmatization.

What to do about overweight and adiposity in children and teenagers?

80 per cent of the overweight children remain too heavy as adults. Therefore, it is very important to intervene early. A big part of the population demands political measures. There were deliberations to increase the taxes on unhealthy and highly caloric food. Conversely, taxes on healthy foods should be decreased in order to promote healthy food. These measures could potentially prevent overweight and type-2-diabetes. So far, these taxes are still controversial and not implemented.

Many Germans would also like to see improvements in schools and kindergartens, e. g. more physical activity, classes on healthy lifestyle and on critical media consumption, a better food catering and the ban of sweets and sugary drinks.

Also the food industry could contribute to the prevention of obesity. It would be helpful if the nutrition facts on foods were more comprehensible, and food advertising targeted at children and teenagers was banned of reduced.

The communities could help fighting obesity by building more play grounds and sports places. This would be particularly important in districts with high rates of migrants.

Politicians and doctors call for efforts in the society as a whole a stop the rise of adiposity. E.g. Dirk Schnack urges in the “Ärzte-Zeitung” of Nov. 15, 2013, that common, appropriate prevention and therapy measures should be developed: “Only deeds are convincing”! A round table like this year in Schleswig-Holstein can only be the beginning –concrete steps must follow now“.

It is clear that the eating behavior of a whole family has to change step by step to help an overweight child. A short-term diet is neither a solution for overweight adults nor for children. The University Hospital Leipzig offers in cooperation with the IFB advice and treatment in the obesity outpatient clinics for adults and for children and adolescents. At present, the IFB is investigating the development and therapy of obesity in over 60 scientific studies. The aim is  to develop better treatments in the future. 

For many years the University Hospital Leipzig treats obese children and adolescents (Photo: IFB Adiposity).).

Jonathan Fasshauer