I have chosen childhood obesity as the population health issue that interests me most as I believe it is one of the most pressing problems of the XL generation. The major controversy concerning childhood obesity is whether the condition is predetermined by genetics, individual behavior, or the social or physical environment in which children are raised. A fifth health care determinant, access to care, is the least influential in this case.
This latter point of view is supported by the fact that childhood obesity has tripled over the last three decades in the United States. This drastic increase makes researchers believe that this disease can be classified as environmental since modern children are raised in conditions that are drastically different from those of the previous generations. This environmental shift accounts for the fact that even children with healthy genetic backgrounds can fall victim to childhood obesity.
The researchers point to such environmental factors as an increasingly polluted atmosphere, insufficient amounts of sleep, the ubiquity of fast food, and rapid technological development. The social environment seems to be less important since even higher income levels and social status do not safeguard children against the condition (Cunningham, Kramer, & Narayan, 2014).
Despite the evident impact of environmental factors, other scientists still believe in the essential role of genetics, which is one of the most important parts of the equation. For example, it has been proven by various studies that it is much more difficult for some people to maintain a normal weight even if they avoid junk food. In the most complicated cases, even significant lifestyle changes have a very minimal impact on body mass (Moustafa & Froguel, 2013).
Nevertheless, the role of individual behavior should not be underestimated. Behavioral studies have proven that it is possible to predict obesity by relying on an analysis of personal traits. For instance, 4-year-old children who demonstrate low inhibitory control together with the inability to delay gratification are likely to have an increased BMI at the age of 11. These self-regulatory behaviors are sometimes attributed to genetics since they appear very early in life.
However, other scientists believe that they are preconditioned by the personality of a child, which is taught rather than inherited. Other influential behavioral factors include personal diet, physical activity, sleeping and studying habits, and so on. A lack of sleep, a sedentary lifestyle, and an unhealthy diet are often responsible for childhood obesity (Moustafa & Froguel, 2013).
As clear from the current evidence, it is difficult to single out one health determinant as the greatest contributor to childhood obesity since each case is individual (though personal behavior and genetics are the most frequently cited reasons). However, according to epidemiological data, regardless of its root cause, obesity in children has already become a pandemic disease: 20-25% of children and 40-50% of teenagers currently suffer from the condition. The results of research conducted in 79 countries showed that more than 22 million children under 5 years old have obesity issues (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2014).
Besides proving the epidemic character of the disease, these statistics also support the idea that obesity is a complex condition with multiple causes, which means that all policies and health intervention projects should go much further than just diet and exercise. They must take into consideration the fact that obesity is influenced by genetic, behavioral, social, psychological, metabolic, and other factors, the combination of which is unique for each individual child. Thus, although it is possible to develop policies that promote healthy eating behavior, physical activity, and other positive habits, each case must still be addressed independently in order to identify the most significant factors and eliminate the root cause of the problem.
Cunningham, S. A., Kramer, M. R., & Narayan, K. V. (2014). Incidence of childhood obesity in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(5), 403-411.
Moustafa, J. S. E. S., & Froguel, P. (2013). From obesity genetics to the future of personalized obesity therapy. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 9(7), 402-413.
Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Flegal, K. M. (2014). Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Jama, 311(8), 806-814.