The Obesity Risk Everyone Forgets

Jessica Sparks Lilley, MD


April 09, 2021

Clinicians in pediatrics have noticed a troubling pattern emerge during the pandemic, something that is darkly referred to as "the COVID 19," or the 19 or more pounds that many of our patients have gained in the past year. This phenomenon has underscored many maxims in pediatric weight management, mainly that frequent snacking, decreased physical activity, and less parental supervision lead to increased weight gain. But could we be missing another lesson this trend is teaching us? What about the relationship between catastrophe and childhood obesity?

Beyond the increased weight gain with lockdowns, I have observed other evidence in my own practice that childhood trauma or adverse experiences increase obesity. Our electronic medical record system gives an alert when a chart with sensitive information is accessed. One example might be if the patient had been seen at a clinic for children who have been abused. I am heartbroken at how often this happens. Academically, I understand the dire statistics about the incidence of child abuse, but the frequency at which I see this pattern is jarring.

Over the years, one striking correlation became clear among my patient population: Children with obesity were more likely to have been seen in the child abuse clinic than normal-weight peers.

I am far from the only one to have observed this relationship. Television shows focusing on severe obesity, such as My 600-Pound Life, often show trauma as both a cause and effect of severe obesity. This theme also became apparent on the show The Biggest Loser, which highlighted the difficulty of achieving and maintaining substantial weight loss. If even Hollywood has noticed this association, shouldn't we be much farther ahead?

Pathways to Obesity

Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) encompass various causes of child trauma, including abuse or neglect; poverty; household or neighborhood violence; and death, illness, or incarceration of a parent. A pivotal report in 1998 formalized the suspicion that many of us could plainly see: People who suffered ACE have higher incidence of heart disease, COPD, liver disease, incarceration, and drug abuse. For those with six or more ACE, life expectancy averaged 20 years less than those who had none. More recently, a meta-analysis found an odds ratio of 1.46 for adult obesity with known history of childhood trauma.

Handing someone a diet plan and lecturing them about weight loss is...especially cruel if we do not assess for and address underlying pain.

As a pediatric endocrinologist living in the poorest state of the country, I have clearly observed the correlation between childhood obesity and poverty. While prior generations may have associated child poverty with malnutrition and starvation, we are seeing in modern times that obesity has become a disease of lack. Calorie-dense and processed foods tend to be less expensive, more shelf-stable, and more accessible to people living in both urban and rural food deserts.

I am also a foster mother and have received extensive training in parenting children who have lived through trauma and neglect. For children who have endured food scarcity and deprivation, hoarding food and overeating are expected responses.

But the pathways to abnormal weight gain are myriad and expand beyond binge eating or numbing with food. ACE are particularly troubling because they affect developing brains and the neuroendocrine system; they alter epigenetics and cause heritable changes. Structural brain differences have been evident in the frontopolar cortex, which is linked to centers in the hypothalamus that control appetite. And increased stress raises cortisol release, increases insulin resistance, and alters satiety.

Shifting Our Approach to Treatment

The significant cost of ACE is enormous and affects us all. Health professionals in pediatrics must understand these connections to effectively counsel children and their families dealing with obesity. Handing someone a diet plan and lecturing them about weight loss is never effective, but this common tactic is especially cruel if we do not assess for and address underlying pain. Obviously, blame and shame are ineffective motivators for lifestyle change in any circumstance, but these tactics may be especially harmful in the light of childhood trauma.

Screening for ACE is important in every aspect of pediatric care. The presence of obesity, however, should remind us to be more sensitive to the possibility of causative trauma. Clinicians for adults are not off the hook either. Fully 60% of adults suffered ACE and are dealing with the aftermath.

To improve health outcomes across the board, we must screen for trauma and become educated on trauma-informed care. Perhaps the most important first referral for a child suffering ACE and obesity is to a trained counselor or a social worker. Shepherding children through trauma will be more effective for attaining healthy weight than any remedy I can prescribe as an endocrinologist. Furthermore, this is our necessary role as healers. More than ever, we need to approach chronic diseases, including obesity, with utmost compassion.

Jessica Sparks Lilley, MD, is the division chief of pediatric endocrinology at the Mississippi Center for Advanced Medicine in Madison, Mississippi. She became interested in pediatric endocrinology at a young age after seeing family members live with various endocrine disorders, including type 1 diabetes, Addison disease, and growth hormone deficiency.

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