Rising Cases of Obesity Among Teenagers Is A Silent Epidemic

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Saheli, an 18-year-old college student from West Bengal, was apprehensive about meeting her friends after bouts of lockdowns finally ended. Although she has had several gossip sessions on video calls with them, and her well-filtered Instagram selfies have garnered several likes during the pandemic, what those airbrushed images concealed well from the world was her sudden weight gain.

Saheli had gone from being petite to slightly overweight in the past 11 months, and although she knows the reasons for this physical change, she has found herself unable to do much about them. Saheli isn’t the only one, who has gained substantial weight during this period, pointed out Dr Sanjay Shah, General Physician, Fortis Hospital, Mulund.

There has been a substantial rise in cases of obesity among teenagers during this period, and the leading cause for this is lifestyle disruptions, he said. Teens have clearly not voluntarily chosen the sudden shift to online education, nor have they chosen the sedentary lifestyle they have been forced to live in the past one and a half years. However, these changes have been weighing heavily on them.

What Risks Are Teens Facing Due to Obesity

Obesity often comes with a host of other health problems. In teens with obesity, we have seen additional issues of high blood pressure and cholesterol, which pave the way for cardiovascular ailments. There is also the risk of diabetes, specifically type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, joint pain, osteoarthritis, etc. Many obese children also suffer from psychological issues at times because they’re fat-shamed or mocked,” pointed out Shah.

“The pandemic has also impacted the sexual health of teenage girls who have obesity. One out of ten girls has irregular periods, excessive or decreased blood flow, facial hair growth, and weight gain due to hormonal imbalance. A significant number of children, including teenagers in India, have hypothyroidism too,” added Shah.

Dr Shalini Joshi, Senior Consultant, Internal Medicine at Fortis Hospitals, Bengaluru, explained that metabolic disorders, namely insulin resistance and PCOS, can also stem from being overweight.

“Polycystic ovary syndrome is an important example of a metabolic disorder, associated with insulin resistance, and the incidence of PCOS is on the rise among teens due to obesity,” she stated.

Dr Joshi further added that problems are not always physical when it comes to obesity. “Teenagers may suffer from anxiety, depression, mood swings, tiredness, pessimism, poor sleep, and low self-esteem due to stressful situations during lockdowns in the pandemic. They would end up eating junk food, sugar-laden carbonated beverages, pizzas as comfort food leading to weight issues,” she explained.

Teen Obesity and Mental Health

Adolescents have different developmental needs than adults. Dr. Anil Sethi, a Life coach & wellness expert, explained that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the screentime used by teens was mostly to get in touch with friends, play video games and be on social media.

However, since the lockdowns started, long hours of online classes have pushed all teenagers to lead a sedentary lifestyle, as a consequence of which obesity has increased, which in turn has affected the mental health of teens.

Dr Sethi pointed out that “obesity often worsens depression, anxiety and the general quality of life. However, among teens, the biggest problem associated with obesity is negative body image issues, which can take a toll on their self-esteem. These factors, added with the pandemic stressors, have not been very conducive to many.”

Teens and Weight Loss Surgeries

Recent studies done in various parts of the world indicate that obese children and teens may end up with severe Covid illnesses. Children, including teens, with normal and healthy weight, are usually asymptomatic and even less susceptible to Covid 19 infection. Perhaps that’s the reason why we have seen a spike in demand for weight loss surgeries in India as well.

There has been an increase in inquiries and discussions regarding weight-loss surgeries for adolescents in the last year or so. “Some teenagers are getting teased about their looks, while some are having breathlessness problems during walking or playing due to obesity. And, of course, there are COVID fears. Therefore, there has been a rise in surgery for taking off extra fat in the chest area, which occurs in a condition called gynecomastia seen in very obese males,” explained Dr. Joshi.

While this process can be a boon to many, it isn’t primarily necessary. Obesity is often a lifestyle disease, and if the factors that cause it can be managed better, teens can deal with this health problem in a better way.

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