Childhood obesity is a frequent occurrence in affluent families where over-nutrition in the form of excess calories and under-nutrition in the form of vitamins and mineral deficiency coexist.
On many occasions, owing to the adoption of western lifestyle, families having overweight/obese children who can be broadly classified into the following categories where:
- Both parents and all the children are obese. Here, the whole family is overweight or obese.
- Both parents are of fairly normal or are slightly overweight but the children are overweight or obese.
- Both parents and one child are normal but the other child is obese.
- One parent and one child are normal and the other parent and the other child are obese.
Insulin (the master hormone) is the cause of the above categories.
Most individuals normally associate excess insulin with Diabetes. Very few people actually know that excess insulin also causes obesity, PCOS/PCOD, besides causing inflammation, which shows up as blood pressure, joint pains, heart problems, asthma, autoimmune ailments, etc.
Contrary to popular belief that lifestyle ailments like obesity and metabolic syndromes like diabetes, blood pressure, heart problems are hereditary and genetic in nature, there has not been any documented proof that excess insulin is produced because of genes.
Then how does childhood obesity or other lifestyle and metabolic syndromes like diabetes run in families? It is the inheritance of the environment that is transferred from one generation to another and not those of genes. The environment comprises of food and lifestyle. The environment that determines the obesity status starts with ovum i.e., even before conception. Since women are born with a lifetime supply of ova given by their mother, obesity status of a child can be determined by food and lifestyle status of even the grandmother.
How does the inherited environment from mother/grandmother determine the obesity status of the child?
If a mother gets less than adequate nutrition, especially in the third trimester of the pregnancy, the fetus is in a starvation mode. This makes the fetus produce excess insulin to store the food as fat to ward off the perceived famine. Although the excess insulin is produced due to the environment, it is commonly referred to as the ‘thrifty gene’. It works very well as long as the food supply continues to be inadequate outside the womb as well. But unfortunately, the environment in the present day world is the opposite of what the ‘thrifty gene’ is designed for, i.e. abundance of quick digesting food within easy reach.
This mismatch between food availability and insulin production between the womb and the outside world makes children obese.
If the ‘thrifty gene’ develops in the mother, its effects are limited to the fetus that receives inadequate nutrition in the third trimester of the pregnancy. So, only one child may be obese while the other one is normal. But if the ‘thrifty gene’ has developed in the grandmother it will be passed on to all the female children, because they are born with ova from their mother. So, all the children born to a mother who received ‘thrifty gene’ from grandmother are likely to be obese. This explains the reason for all the children in the family being obese. The third category where everyone in the family is obese may be due to excess calorie consumption or imbalanced nutrition. Sometimes, obesity may have nothing to do with inheritance. After an extensive survey performed in the USA, it was found that the pets of obese families had a relatively high tendency to be obese as well.
Scientific proof for Thrifty Gene:
For those who read the Andhra newspaper ‘Eenadu’, there was an article on 12th July 2015, wherein an Indian origin scientist from Australia said that Indians are more prone to Diabetes because of inadequate nutrition of their ancestors. Earlier, one scientist compared the food habits of Indian and African women during pregnancy and prevalence of lifestyle diseases among their offspring. His observation was that both Indian and African pregnant women ate less than the adequate amount necessary. But the African children continued to receive less nutrition outside the womb also, they did not develop Lifestyle Disease (LSDs). But in the study, cases of children born to Indian mothers received excess nutrition outside the womb as compared to within the womb and this has predisposed them to Lifestyle Disease (LSDs) later in life. The well-documented Dutch Winter Syndrome also proves this point.
Are the children destined to be obese for rest of their life just because the child’s grandmother/mother ate inappropriately during pregnancy?
No, the effects of wrong nutrition in the womb can be corrected by providing the child with food that matches its environment in the womb as early as possible, because fat cells once created can not be removed. Since this is linked to the food habits of the whole household, only parents can do this with the help of a knowledgeable nutritionist.
Ayurveda recognized this fact ages ago and suggested that one should eat according to their Jatharagni i.e., those with higher digestive capacity should eat ‘harder to digest foods’ and those with lesser digestive capacity should eat easy digesting foods. Jatharagni roughly corresponds to the ‘Thrifty Gene’ phenomena. At present the world is flooded with fast digesting foods, which may be suitable for people with less Jatharagni but fattening to others. Easy digesting foods include refined carbohydrates like white rice; fermented carbohydrates like idlis, bread and processed carbohydrates like oats, cornflakes.
“They are not good for children”.
There is no dispute on this point. However, the food that comes into the realm of the fast-food category is varied. An average parent considers biscuits, sandwiches, quick digesting foods as idli, dosa, quick cooking oats as healthy. However, they are not considered to be healthy especially for children who have excess insulin production.
Biscuits are hygienic as compared to street food; their consumption can make children fat, especially by crowding out good foods.
Anti-obesity tips that are particularly applicable to children:
- Do not reduce the energy consumption of obese children. Instead, change the composition of the food. Reduce their intake of quick digesting food and increase their intake of complex carbohydrates like fruits and salads.
- Increase the child’s intake of lean protein. It is a food group that provides satiety.
- Include good fats into their nutrition plan. It gives the child a feeling of satisfaction.
- Increase their physical activity. Look at ways to make physical activities a family affair.
- Do not isolate an obese child with healthy foods at the dining table. Eating healthy should be a family affair.
- Make fruits and salads a regular habit for the whole family.
- Do not make a child conscious of obesity. It could well be a start of personality disorders like lowered self-esteem and can translate into more severe issues such as depression in the long run.
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