Health risks

Being overweight or obese in childhood has consequences for health in both the short term and the longer term. Once established, obesity is notoriously difficult to treat, so prevention and early intervention are very important.

The emotional and psychological effects of being overweight are often seen as the most immediate and serious by children themselves. They include teasing and discrimination by peers; low self-esteem; anxiety and depression. In one study, severely obese children rated their quality of life as low as children with cancer on chemotherapy. Obese children may also suffer disturbed sleep and fatigue.

Obese children and young people are more likely to become obese adults, and have a higher risk of morbidity, disability and premature mortality in adulthood. Although many of the most serious consequences may not become apparent until adulthood, the effects of obesity – for example, raised blood pressure, fatty changes to the arterial linings and hormonal and chemical changes such as raised cholesterol and metabolic syndrome – can be identified in obese children and adolescents.

Some obesity-related conditions can develop during childhood. Type 2 diabetes, previously considered an adult disease, has increased dramatically in overweight children as young as five, and has been dubbed ‘diabesity’. The global rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents has led to an urgent call for action by the International Diabetes Federation, which warns that the world is currently facing a twin epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in young people. Other health risks of childhood obesity include early puberty, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, skin infections, asthma and other respiratory problems. Some musculoskeletal disorders are also more common, including slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE) and tibia vara (Blount disease).

Health risks associated with obesity are summarised in the Child health and obesity section.