Obesity isn’t just harmful to the heart — it can also have a negative effect on the brain.

While we’ve long known about the link between obesity and conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, a growing body of research examining the connection between body fat and the brain’s grey matter reveals that some types of obesity can lead to a greater risk of dementia and stroke.  

For example, a new study  from researchers at the University of South Australia, reported in the Neurobiology of Aging, found that for every extra 3 kilograms of body weight in a person of average height, the amount of gray matter decreased by 0.3%. With the ongoing rise in obesity (globally nearly two million adults are overweight and 650 million have obesity, according to the World Health Organization) this poses big concerns for overall brain health among the obese. 

We know all too well that the obesity problem extends to children — it’s been on the rise over the past 50 years in the pediatric population. Nearly 40 million children younger than five years old and over 340 million young people aged 15–19 years are considered to be overweight or obese. In the U.S., the percentage of children and adolescents with obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s — the prevalence of obesity in those aged 12 to 19 is now 20 percent.

It’s not yet known how obesity affects cognitive functioning in young people — although a small study presented at the Radiographic Society of North America found that MRI scans have found signs of damage in the brains of teens with obesity. It’s thought that obesity may trigger inflammation throughout the body and the nervous system that may affect the brain. 

“Brain changes found in obese adolescents related to important regions responsible for control of appetite, emotions, and cognitive functions,” said Pamela Bertolazzi, the study co-author and a biomedical scientist and PhD student from the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

COVID-19 hasn’t helped. Teens are more sedentary than ever before and this poses a new set of challenges for clinicians trying to assist the pediatric population. 

The message to parents? These are the tried-and-true strategies when it comes to developing healthy eating and exercise habits in young people:  

  • Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products.
  • Include low-fat or non-fat milk or dairy products, including cheese and yogurt.
  • Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils, and beans for protein.
  • Encourage your family to drink lots of water.
  • Limit sugary drinks.
  • Limit consumption of sugar and saturated fat.
  • Children ages 3 through 5 years should be active throughout the day. Children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years should be physically active at least 60 minutes each day. 

Photo credit: Unsplash

How are kids coping through COVID-19? They aren’t so different from adults. They’re bored, they’re comfortable eating, they miss their friends, they’re binging on their digital devices and they’re experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety.

Add to this the fact that the protracted disruption of in-person schooling means they are more sedate than ever, without the benefit of walking to school, engaging in gym class and extracurriculars and running around at recess. All these factors can contribute to pediatric weight gain that could have long-term impacts on children’s health, including increasing their risk for Type 2 diabetes mellitus and high blood pressure.

Good habits begin in childhood, which is why it’s important for parents to do what they can to help kids maintain a healthy weight and thus reduce the risk of obesity later in life.(The rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in recent decades among preschool children, as well as those ages 12 to 19, and more than tripled among those ages 6 to 11.)

Example is the best teacher.  As such, helping kids lead healthy lifestyles begins with parents who lead by example. Kids emulate what they see — so by being a good role model and eating well, exercising regularly and building healthy habits into your own daily life, you are providing your child with a solid blueprint for incorporating healthy habits that will serve them well and in the future. One of the best things you can do is to try to have as many family meals together as possible. The Childhood Obesity Foundation reports that the more meals a family eats together at home, the more likely the children are to eat fruit, vegetables, whole grains and calcium-rich food and beverages. Children and youth who eat at home are also more likely to feel connected to their family. They do better in school and are half as likely to run into problems with substance abuse as teenagers.

Many parents worry about whether they should intervene if their child gains weight during the pandemic. It’s important not to put the focus on dieting, restricting foods and calorie counting. For one thing, research shows that childhood dieting can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. And controlling what children eat can cause them to fixate more on the foods parents don’t want them to have. It helps to remember that some weight gain may have nothing to do with the pandemic since many children follow a growth pattern, especially around puberty, where they “round out” before they shoot up in height. 

Instead, focus on helping your child have good habits, and focus on developing them yourself —balanced meals and healthy snacks (limit high-fat, high-sugar snacks and sugary beverages such as pop and sports drinks), getting enough sleep (which will be improved if digital devices are moved out of the bedroom) and regular movement (the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests kids move 60 minutes a day, which can be done in movement breaks throughout the day).

While it can be challenging to fit in physical activity at home, parents can take the lead by engaging in regular walks or hikes with their kids, without invoking weight loss as the goal. The fresh air and movement can give them a serotonin mood boost in addition to physical exercise. There are lots of creative options to engage in on the homefront — from TikTok dance routines to yoga videos. Cycling, skipping rope, playing catch and shooting hoops all offer the opportunity for kids to connect with their kids and it’s good exercise for adults too.

It’s also very important to encourage your kids to take care of themselves emotionally, and take care of yours! — help them talk about their feelings about the pandemic, ask them how they are doing and allow them to speak freely, whether it’s their fears for the future or the fact that they miss hanging out with their friends. Support their creativity and hobbies, whether it’s playing a musical instrument or journalling or cooking. Get them professional help if they seem depressed. When kids feel good about themselves and their lives, they are more likely to be both physically and mentally healthy. 

In this way, they are a lot like adults.

Feature Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones This Season.

At Winterberry Family Medicine we invite and encourage you to book your flu shot and counselling appointment as early as possible. To make your appointment at our clinic instantly, please click here.

Below you’ll find important and trustworthy information about the flu and the flu shot from the Ontario Ministry of Health flu and flu shot news release.

TORONTO — To keep Ontarians healthy this flu season and prevent unnecessary visits to the hospital during the fourth wave of COVID-19, the Ontario government is launching one of the largest flu immunization campaigns in the province’s history, with the flu shot available to all Ontarians starting in November.

“Our government is prepared for flu season and is launching an even larger flu shot program this year to keep Ontarians healthy as we continue to respond to COVID-19,” said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. “It is safe to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot at the same time, so if you’re receiving your flu shot and still have yet to receive a first or second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, now is the time.”

Last year, uptake of the flu vaccine by Ontarians was the highest in recent history. Building on this success, Ontario is investing over $89 million this year to purchase over 7.6 million flu vaccine doses, which is 1.4 million more doses than last year. This includes a total of 1.8 million doses specifically for seniors.

To protect the most vulnerable, Ontario’s initial supply of flu vaccine was prioritized for long-term care home residents and hospital patients beginning in September, and flu shots are now available for seniors and others most at risk for complications from the flu. Starting in November, the flu shot will be available for all Ontarians through doctor and nurse practitioner offices, participating pharmacies, and public health units. To further improve access and convenience to the flu shot and based on demand in recent years, pharmacies will receive approximately 40 per cent of the allocated doses, up from 36 per cent last year.

“The annual flu shot is the best defence against the flu this season,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “As we head into the fall and begin gathering indoors more often with family and friends, it is even more important to get your flu shot, in addition to following public health measures, to protect yourself and those around you.”

Each flu season, Ontario receives its supply of flu vaccine in multiple shipments from manufacturers over several months starting in mid- to late September based on the schedule negotiated between the federal government and manufacturers. Distribution and the ability for locations in Ontario to re-order additional supply of flu vaccine are based on the timing of shipments from manufacturers and the replenishment of the provincial supply. Ontarians are encouraged to be patient as it may take time for shipments to arrive to their local flu shot locations.

To help stop the spread this fall, Ontarians should continue to follow COVID-19 public health measures and advice in public settings, including wearing a face covering indoors, frequent handwashing, and maintaining physical distance from those outside their household.

Let’s face it: We live in a world where we are judged by our appearance. Women, especially, are constantly bombarded with unrealistic standards of “beauty” in the media, from magazine covers to TV ads and carefully curated Instagram images.

So, it’s not surprising that people who are obese suffer from a lower sense of self-worth determined by their weight status. A growing body of evidence is showing the toll that obesity can take on mental health. 

A new study in Human Molecular Genetics, using data from  a mental health questionnaire of 145,000 people, found that having a higher body mass index (BMI) increases the likelihood of depression. In fact, obesity and depression have a two-way connection—having obesity appears to cause depression and vice versa. There’s also the fact that many antidepressants list weight gain as a side effect.

This points to the threat of increasing rates of depression in people around the world. Obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Population. More than 40% of adults with depression are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and depressed children often have a higher BMI than children who aren’t depressed. 

There isn’t just one cause for either depression or obesity. Both can be influenced by social and environmental determinants, such as childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, chronic stress and poverty. And both conditions are risk factors for other health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, chronic pain and sleep problems.

In terms of prevention strategies, here are 3 strategies to reduce your risk for both depression and obesity:

  1. Keep active

Regular exercise helps release mood enhancing endorphins and  keeps weight in check. However, most depressed people aren’t motivated to exercise. Taking small steps of even just 10 minutes a day can help kickstart a regular exercise routine. 

  1. Seek therapy

Talking to a professional can help address issues such as emotional eating, binge eating and food addictions. For those who are depressed, understanding the causes of their low mood and the available treatments can be helpful. It’s important to process the emotional issues that both obesity and depression can cause.

  1. Have a plan

 If you’ve been diagnosed with either obesity or depression, or both, your health care provider will have provided you with a treatment plan that might include medication, dietary changes, referral to a therapist or other suggestions to manage your condition(s). Doing your best to stick to this plan — and informing your health care provider when you run into difficulties — is your best chance to minimize side effects and complications and put yourself on a path to better health.