Being big and the risk of disease
Several studies in Malta have repeatedly shown unacceptably high levels of overweight and frank obesity. Worse still is the worrying trend that this is on the increase. For example, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
Several influences are in play.
Obese parents tend to produce obese children. Obese mothers tend to have poor blood sugar control or even frank diabetes in pregnancy. This produces fat babies who are at risk of becoming obese.
Indeed, statistics show that if one parent is obese, their offspring have a 30 per cent risk of being obese, and if both parents are obese, this risk increases to 60 per cent.
Obesity has a direct health impact leading to diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, and therefore, obesity itself can be called a disease.
For example, in the US, obesity causes almost eight per cent of all deaths. These are cardiovascular deaths (such as stroke and heart attack) and cancer.
A plethora of other medical afflictions are also precipitated by overweight and obesity, and these include other endocrine and hormonal problems (apart from diabetes), high blood lipids, liver disease, gallstones, obstructive sleep apnoea, obesity hypoventilation syndrome, and a variety of skeletal problems (mostly associated with the legs due to excessive weight bearing).
Also, psychosocial distorted peer relationships, poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression and skin infections can occur.
Fat children become fat adults who produce more fat children. Puppy fat is a myth. Fat children who enter puberty will remain or return to being fat after minimal weight loss.
Again, statistics show that 25-50 per cent of obese adolescents develop into obese adults. Furthermore, the earlier the onset of obesity in childhood, the greater the likelihood of obesity and its complications in adulthood.
In many respects, obesity is similar to smoking in that once fat, after slimming, the likelihood of relapsing, i.e. regaining shed weight, is high.
To get down to bare numbers, obesity shortens life, on average, by more than five years for males and more than seven years for females.
For the vast majority of individuals who are overweight or obese, the solution is relatively simple and consists of an appropriate diet that concentrates mainly on fruit and vegetables, and an adequate level of daily exercise.
Many studies have shown that the Maltese diet, including that of children, is deteriorating, with an abandonment of the so-called healthy Mediterranean diet and an adoption of foods high in sugar, carbohydrate, fat and other materials that come from processed and prepared foodstuffs.
Apart from the cost to the individual, obesity also costs the community. It is estimated that obesity cost the Maltese taxpayer €78.3 million per annum.
Prevention is crucial, hence children must be targeted with healthy eating and healthy lifestyle campaigns.
Prof. Grech is a consultant paediatrician with a special interest in paediatric cardiology and has published extensively not only in paediatric cardiology but also in general paediatrics and other aspects of medicine.