With the rise of consumerism, there has been a rise in sugar use. Ever since sugar became a necessity and no longer a luxury good, its consumption has been skyrocketing. Many scientists suggest that we are designed to desire sugar intuitively as it is a survival mechanism; glucose is essential to life because it fuels the billions of nerve cells within our brain. Sugar is often referred to as an addiction because it may trigger the same dopamine-mediated biological mechanisms that recreational drugs such as morphine and cocaine do.
With prolonged exposure to sugar, the dopamine signal sent to the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center, weakens. Over time, one would develop tolerance to sugar and thus would need greater amounts to achieve the same effect. Americans that are older than 6 years old consumed about 14% of total daily calories from added sugars during 2003-2010.
Added sugars can be defined as sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared.
These exclude naturally occurring sugars such as the ones found in fruit or milk. Startlingly, these added sugars often hide in plain sight, with at least 61 names listed on food labels such as sucrose, barley malt, dextrose, and rice syrup. Shockingly, they are found in 74% of packaged foods. One major killer in the game is sugar-sweetens beverages. The calories provided by sugar-sweetened beverages are very low in nutritional value and may not be as filling as solid food. Therefore, the increased consumption of these drinks only lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Today, the typical teenage boy in the US drinks about 21 ounces of soda every day. Each can contains around ten teaspoons of sugar and some even contain caffeine.
A recent study conducted in Harvard discovered a strong link between the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and childhood obesity. How did our society become so obsessed with calorie-dense, sugar-sweetened drinks? A study shows that in 2010, preschoolers, on average, viewed a total of 213 ads for sugary and energy drinks. Children watched an average of 277 ads and teens with 406 ads. The environment they live in don’t seem to help either. With the cheap prices, large cups, and refill machines at every corner, it is hard for children to resist the temptation. Even among the people who want to get healthier, their idea of “a balanced diet” is already lopsided.
As mentioned briefly above, family dynamics and home environment play a crucial role in childhood obesity. The family environment includes habits and rules set in place by the parents and enforced by the entire family.As children often look to their parents for guidance, the parental feeding behavior is thus a important factor in forming good eating habits. As easy as how it may sound, most families require both parents to work and thus sitting down for a wholesome meal with the children everyday is not always feasible. Grocery shopping and cooking healthy meals each night takes financial resources as well as time. This could therefore result in an increase in consumption of fast foods. Moreover, it has been found that have an overweight mother or a single-parent family increases the likelihood of a child being overweight or obese.
Obesity is a condition that is evident through an increased adipose tissue mass, or in other words, an excessive accumulation of fat. In order to understand how such accumulation of fat, or triglycerides, can become excessive, it is necessary to grasp the fundamental mechanisms behind how our body stores and uses fat. First of all, as fats enter the stomach, it is emulsified by bile salts and broken down into micelles. Lipase then further breaks down the fats into glycerol and fatty acids, which are absorbed into the cell lining within the intestine. Once absorbed, they are reassembled into triglycerides. This process occurs due to fats being too large to smoothly travel across the cell membranes. When our bodies need energy, it initially uses available sugar. However, when food is scarce, the enzyme lipase disassembles triglycerides into glycerol and fatty acids. These components flow into the bloodstream and are used by the tissues to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Obesity has been defined by the National Institutes of Health as a BMI of 30 and above. BMI (Body Mass Index) takes a person’s weight in kilograms (kg) and divide it by their height in meters (m) squared. This value correlates strongly with the total body fat content. Although BMI is widely used to measure obesity, it may not be as appropriate to use among children because of their growing body shape. This is why BMI-for-age percentiles, a similar measurement that takes age and gender into consideration, are used more commonly amongst children. Childhood obesity can be defined as a bMI at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex. Another disadvantage of BMI is that it does not differentiate between fat and fat-free mass (muscle and bone) and thus may exaggerate the fat content in more muscular children. Therefore, the ideal measurement should be based on direct measurements of fat prevalence. Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) is widely used for large population-based studies and clinical situations while waist circumference is used for a more small-scale investigation.
Factors such as behavior, environment, and genetics all play an important role in childhood obesity. Behaviours and habits, such as eating an excess amount of caloric dense food and not getting enough exercise contribute directly to obesity as they cause an imbalance between the energy consumed and the energy burned. The increase in consumption of sugary drinks and food, such as breakfast cereals and energy drinks, can also cause weight gain. As mentioned earlier, we currently live in an obesogenic society where unhealthy food is promoted. It can be difficult for children and parents to choose wisely in an environment with so much temptation.