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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

The Effects of Obesity on Adolescent Development

Emi Arima

When I was a little girl in grade school, I remember sitting down to watch Today's Special and the Letter People. During commercial breaks there were these ads with a potato sitting on the couch with a remote control in his hand and scroll across the bottom of the screen suggesting that I go outside and get some exercise and not become couch potato (maybe it was just a southern Illinois thing). In the 1980s and early '90s mom would always call to us children that we should go outside and get some exercise, or else we would be doomed to a life of couch potato-ness. Now we have even more distractions with computers and the Internet. Life is a rush of responsibilities and as family dinners and leisure time for exercise become a luxury, fast food and sloth-like behavior are becoming prevalent. Although these are not the sole reasons for the rising numbers of overweight Americans, they are major contributors. This paper hopes to take a look into the effects of this trend on developing adolescents.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, anyone within the 85th to 95th BMI (age and gender-specific body mass index-weight in kg/height in meters squared (1).) percentile is of concern for obesity. Obesity itself is defined by a BMI from the 95th percentile or higher (3). . Obesity has become an ever-increasing problem in the United States. The majority of the studies and well-know adverse effects of this trend pertain to adults, but children and adolescents are not foreign from the issue of excess body mass. Since 1972, the number of 6-11 year old children has almost doubled (6). . In fact recent statistics suggest that approximately one in ever five children (about 20%) of children are overweight (2). . Obesity not only sets the groundwork for weight problems as an adult, but can have direct effects on the childhood years-the consequences are with regards to physical and emotional/social development.

Obesity has been linked to many disorders, ranging from bothersome to fatal. Supposedly there are 300,000 obesity-related deaths per year (4). . Excess body weight is very stressful on the skeletal framework of the body and can cause several sorts of orthopedic disorders. Examples include: "Blount's Disease [bow-legged deformities], flat feet (breakdown of arch ligament structure, knee cap pressure/pain, spondylolesthesis (low back pain) and slipped capitol femoral epiphysis (when the ball in hip falls out of its socket creating limited motion, pain and possibly bone death.) (4). . It makes sense that children are extremely susceptible to these problems because their bodies are still growing and becoming stronger. There has been considerable concern the last few years that book bags full of textbooks are causing damage to the posture and spinal structure, and such concerns are only intensified when a child is also carrying around an abnormal amount of body mass as well (4). .

However, the effects of obesity on a child do not end with orthopedic complications. Overweight individuals can also find their breathing and heart affected by the state of their body. Individuals often have short, labored breathing, and there is some indication of pulmonary diseases (such as hypoventilation) linked with obesity (1). . Breathing difficulty is partially related to cardiovascular problems that are also often related to the disorder. One of the common reasons for the heart problems is that obese individuals are often inactive and do not give themselves a chance to strengthen their heart muscle. Instead it remains relatively weak, and must pump harder than that of a normal-sized individual. Other conditions related to weight issues include: elevated blood pressure, non-insulin-dependant diabetes, dermatological problems, immunologic problems, endocrinologyic disorders, sleep apnea, pseudotumor cerebri, gout, arthritis, and colorectal cancer (1).(2).(4). .

A relatively new avenue of research into the effects of obesity that directly involves children is the idea that weight problems can induce premature puberty. At the moment, fat is merely a possible explanation for the occurrence that girl, some as young as 7 years old (generally placing them in second grade), are beginning to develop the bodies of adolescents (5). .

Although nothing is concrete, obesity seems to be widely accepted as a possible factor of the early puberty in females. It has been a generally accepted rule that the overweight child will develop faster than the thin little girl sitting next to her. Part of this reflects back to the previous stereotyping of the obese. Researchers have found that strenuous activity can delay the effects of puberty (such as with gymnasts or ballerinas), but it is somewhat assumed that most overweight girls are relatively inactive and do not have their athletic endeavors delaying their pubescent years (5). .

It is also believed that the early onset of development spawns from their body composition. In an obese state, the body is more apt to create estrogen (a female sex hormone) with the increased amounts of body fat. It also retains a considerable amount of insulin that is an influencing force in maturation (5). . There are also ongoing studies in hopes to find a connection between leptin (product of fat cells) and the stimulations of the glands that produce sex-related hormones (5). . The overweight individual is also more likely to eat, and there are also theories flying about that dissolved pesticides and "meat laden with hormones" (6). -yet another rivaling theory that exposure and consumption of certain to certain chemicals disrupt the normal flow of adolescence) (6). .

As stated before, the effects of obesity are not as well defined with respect to the male gender. Assessing growth in a young boy takes more knowledge of his background (7). . Oddly enough, where some are trying to establish the case that indeed obesity is a major factor of early development in females, one article seems to suggest that excess body mass may delay such development in a male (8). . The consequences of either scenario-whether quick or seemingly-never-are undesirable. In case of the delay, the boy is essentially left hanging in the arena of puberty; he is smaller, shorter, and less developed than his peers. On the other hand there seems to be a connection between early puberty and testicular cancer (7). .

What happens to the emotional development of a child who is larger and taller than all of her friends? How does she cope when she finds herself with the body of a preteen while the rest of the girls around her remain flat chested? Even disregarding the complicated issues of the early puberty, obesity is a hard issue for children to deal with. Their peer group likes to make fun of others and can often be cruel. Low self-esteem and negative self-image are often common consequences of childhood obesity(1). . Then, once you add on that whole new dimension with the trauma of early development and stress are expected reactions. Not only must she cope with the idea that she no longer looks like her classmates, she is also the mind and impressionable personality inside a more mature looking body. She will naturally draw negative attention from other males (her age and older) because of her budding figure, and may find herself in a sea of hormones without understanding her urges. It is a delicate matter to approach the issue of sexuality with second and third graders who should be carelessly watching Saturday morning cartoons. (6). Studies indicate that these females are more prone to sexual activity and alcohol consumption, and their prolonged exposure to estrogen makes them possibly more vulnerable to breast cancer.

Obesity is a grave problem; in fact it could even be described as epidemic (4). . Weight issues in children not only metabolically predisposes them for obesity and its consequences in their adult lives, but it also has intense effects on their development through the adolescent years. Sandra Hassnik, MD, sums up the situation considerably well when she says, When a child becomes obese, their normal physical, psychological and emotional development is altered. These boys and girls have chronic diseases of middle age during childhood. Their growth physically, emotionally and developmentally is changed-they are often ostracized in peer group activities, they miss the normal social interactions of childhood and normal adolescent physical health but also social-emotional development well into adult life. Overweight kids miss many normal developmental steps. (4).

WWW Sources

1) Understanding Obesity in Youth , from American Heart Association

2)Health Consequences of Obesity in Youth: Childhood Predictors of Adult Disease ,(abstract of article) from Pediatrics page

3) Overweight Children and Adolescents: Description, Epidemiology, and Demographics ,(abstract of article) from Pediatrics page

4) Orthopedics and Childhood Obesity-Does it Predict Chronic Adult Disease? , from

5)Early Puberty: Obesity, environment suspected , from Health

6) Early Puberty and rising obesity linked , from Tuscon Citizen Page

7) Boys, like girls, may be hitting puberty earlier, study suggests , from MSNBC Health

8) Testosterone Therapy in Boys with Delayed Puberty , from American Family Physician

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