The daily battles started in adolescence for Kristin Smith before she’d stepped foot in her first high school classroom.
In eighth grade, her family moved across Crystal Lake, where Smith still lives today. With a change in schools, Smith’s social slate was wiped clean, and she faced what became a difficult unfamiliarity with her new classmates.
“I just kind of used food as my escape,” said Smith, who is now 39. “And then the teasing started, with the calling of names and things in school. It was hard.”
Although she’s made changes, especially since the birth of her son, Christian, seven years ago, Smith struggles with her weight to this day – the lasting effects of unhealthy habits established more than two-and-a-half decades ago.
She isn’t alone. The consequences of childhood obesity are wide-ranging and inescapable.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity in the United States has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2010, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
In the simplest terms, a child with excess body fat is considered overweight or obese. Doctors take several factors into consideration – including weight, age, height and gender – to determine whether a child fits one of those categories. A child well above the normal weight for his or her age and height is considered obese, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Obesity-related illnesses led New England Journal of Medicine researchers in 2005 to predict that despite advancements in medical technology, the current generation of kids will live shorter life spans than their parents.
In addition to a damaged health outlook, those who deal with obesity in their youth face psychological scarring and can struggle to break bad habits their entire lives.
On a larger scale, the American obesity epidemic threatens all taxpayers. In Illinois, obesity has an annual cost to the health-care system of $3.4 billion, according to the Illinois Public Health Institute.
The issue of childhood obesity begins as a simple matter of physical well-being and sprawls in every direction.
It used to be that diabetes – a disease that contributed to about 230,000 deaths in 2007, according to the American Diabetes Association – was talked about in terms of “adult-onset” or “juvenile.”
That’s not the case anymore. Due to the obesity problem, in the past two decades physicians have seen an increase in the number of cases of Type 2 diabetes in children.
The Type 2 form of the disease – in which the body does not correctly use or produce insulin – usually is diagnosed in those 40 years or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Type 2 diabetes is so prevalent among kids that we don’t call it adult onset diabetes anymore,” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “It’s just Type 2 diabetes.”
That increase is troubling because medical professionals don’t know yet exactly the sort of complications that having diabetes for the longer time period will bring.
“Everything that we think about with chronic diseases for adults – heart disease, diabetes, things like that – may occur even earlier with these kids,” said Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University.
Overall, a third of children born in 2000 are expected to develop diabetes in their lifetimes, according to a May 2010 report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity.
In addition to life-threatening diseases, obesity puts children at a greater risk for developing asthma, which can in turn encourage inactivity.
“You may be more prone to asthma attacks,” Henry said. “Of course, if the asthma is not in good control, you may even be less likely to be physically active.”
In a way, Smith’s struggle with her weight as a kid fed on itself.
Although she didn’t see it that way at a time, food was her escape from a challenging life at school. But as she gained weight, things worsened and she found more reason to hide.
“I guess I was an easy target,” she said.
That’s a tough reality for many children who deal with obesity.
The disorder – recently labeled a disease by the American Medical Association – can affect an individual’s self-esteem and make them more likely to be bullied, Henry said.
“Just think back to those grade-school years, all those body shape changes with puberty,” Henry said. “When kids are overweight, they mature earlier, but their psychological development is not going to mature earlier. So now the physical body changes are happening before the brain can kind of reason that this is just a part of growing up.”
In hindsight, Smith wishes she grasped the importance of fitness at a younger age. She said fruits and vegetables were often around the house, but she never “took full advantage.”
The birth of Smith’s son brought a new outlook. Smith started seeing a trainer at the gym, and getting more serious about what she eats. Last week, she completed her first 10K, switching off periods of jogging and walking.
It’s a constant, everyday battle, though, and Smith said that she and her husband often eat less healthy than Christian, their son. She makes a concerted effort to make him more mindful of fitness than she was growing up.
The three make trips to the gym as a family.
“I feel that it’s a great thing for him,” Smith said. “When we want to go to Health Bridge, he understands that we are going for our health, and so that we can be with him for a long time.”
Adrienne Liebich, a wellness coach and counselor who works for the McHenry County Crisis Program, said that teaching good fitness habits can improve more than just physical health.
If a kid can make healthy daily decisions when it comes to eating and exercise, he or she has taken a strong step toward making good decisions in every facet of life.
“When they’re little, they’re not making all those tough choices, having to deal with peer pressure,” said Liebich, a mother of a 1-year-old and 3-year-old who helps with Centegra’s Kids in Motion program. “If you can start out when they’re really young, you’re just making it easier when they get older.”
With rising health issues associated with obesity comes a rising cost.
It’s estimated that obese adults take on an extra $1,429 annually in medical expenses than adults who’ve maintained a healthy weight, according to the 2010 White House report.
Some experts expect the $3.4 billion annual cost to Illinois taxpayers to skyrocket thanks to childhood obesity, climbing as high as $14 billion by 2018, according to the Illinois Public Health Institute.
Bob Topp, associate dean at Marquette’s College of Nursing who’s researched childhood obesity extensively, said a major issue is that we aren’t finding viable solutions yet to obesity-related illnesses.
“One of the major problems is that the health-care system doesn’t know how to treat it,” Topp said. “It isn’t well attended by the common approaches to disease of surgery or medication. It’s a behavioral disease.”
That fact has set off efforts on many fronts. Schools, hospitals, nonprofits, health departments and other organizations have gotten in on trying to fix obesity from the ground up.
“Your weight is the result of two things, and only two things: caloric intake and caloric expenditure,” Topp said. “The issue then is how do we affect what they put in their mouth and the activity they do.”