A mother and her child walk down the street and stop in a traditional food stand on the side of the road. The child is hungry, so the mother buys him a Coke and a bag of chips. Both mom and son are clearly overweight, yet they are happy with their food selection. It is a frequent sight in Costa Rica, and everyday food choices are increasingly affecting the health of many Costa Rican children.
The latest available statistics on obesity are from the 2009 National Nutrition Survey. By then, obesity had already become a primary health concern for doctors. According to the study, which was led by the Health Ministry, 21 percent of Costa Rican children aged 5-12 are overweight, and 9 percent are considered obese. That’s a significant increase from 1996, when child obesity affected less than 15 percent of children in the same age group.
Doctors at the National Children’s Hospital say they are treating an increasing number of patients for diseases related to obesity. In the hospital’s endocrinology unit, 50 children are currently being treated for Type 2 diabetes, which is caused by obesity.
“Obesity and diabetes are two epidemics that go hand in hand. Here in the Children’s Hospital, we have witnessed the exponential growth of these diseases,” says Chief Endocrinologist Erick Richmond.
Children treated at the hospital for Type 2 diabetes now represent 20 percent of the total number of children treated for diabetes. According to Richmond, 10 years ago, it was uncommon to find children with Type 2 diabetes. That no longer holds true, he said.
“Diabetes is only one of the main consequences for a child with obesity. Like any overweight adults, an overweight child can experience psychological problems, high cholesterol, blood pressure, gallbladder trouble and knee and other orthopedic problems,” Richmond said.
The country’s child obesity numbers shadow a world trend. In Costa Rica, more than 65 percent of the population is overweight. Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, in 2010 the number of overweight children under the age of 5 is estimated at more than 42 million. Close to 35 million overweight children live in developing countries. Mexico is the country with the highest child obesity index in the world.
“We have noticed that most obese children have obese parents. In some cases people blame family genetics for weight gain, but in reality, only a few of those families have a medical condition that affects their weight,” Richmond said.
Every two years, the Costa Rican Association for Obesity Investigation (ACEO) holds a forum to discuss obesity statistics and strategies. According to ACEO President Mauricio Barahona, children are increasingly becoming used to consuming large quantities of junk food and are losing the habit of eating fruits and vegetables. In recent years, ACEO has worked closely with the Health Ministry’s National Commission for Obesity.
“A key element is the food that is sold at school cafeterias. In recent years, the Health Ministry has been struggling to regulate what is sold in schools. In the meantime, parents have to know that if their children don’t get a proper breakfast at home, they are likely to buy high-calorie junk food at school,” Barahona said.
Exercise is another key element in the fight against child obesity (see story, Page W1). “Schools have to adapt their exercise program to help obese kids. In most cases, these kids feel segregated since they feel they can’t participate in competitive exercise activities. Teachers have to find ways in which exercise is entertaining and attractive to kids struggling with their body weight,” said Richmond.