Often depicted as an American issue, obesity is a growing global crisis; according to the WHO, there are 1.9 billion overweight adults globally, and 650 million of them are obese. As serious as this issue is, though, even more concerning is the fact that obesity is a multi-generational issue, and maternal eating habits are making our kids sicker. Seemingly healthy children are being diagnosed with metabolic disorder, a conditional typically only found in overweight adults, and it’s putting them at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

Understanding Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome affects 1 in 3 people, making it about as common as obesity among Americans, and it’s best understood as a collected group of risk factors rather than a health condition in and of itself. However, doctors may still order increased supervision of any patient with three of the following five symptoms: triglycerides over 150 mg/dl, low HDL, blood pressure more than 135/80, fasting blood sugar above 100 mg/dl, and waist circumference over 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men. 

The above metrics only apply to grown adults, and their changing bodies make it difficult to identify metabolic syndrome in children. Based on rising childhood obesity rates, though, doctors are learning more about childhood manifestations. In obese children between 8 and 11 years of age, 9.5% also have metabolic syndrome Many of these children will have type 2 diabetes before age 18.

Maternal Health Concerns

If metabolic syndrome is an early warning sign of health issues to come, it’s important to address it as soon as possible – and studies suggest this means making interventions in maternal health. Children of women who have high blood pressure during pregnancy, for example, are more likely to be obese 10-14 years later than those whose mothers maintained normal levels throughout, and obesity, especially with high levels of abdominal fat, is one of the first signs of metabolic syndrome.

Poor dietary habits during pregnancy may also contribute to the likelihood of metabolic syndrome in children. Simply put, expectant mothers shouldn’t be eating for two, but it’s especially important to limit the amount of fat in the diet. Studies suggest a high fat diet during pregnancy may permanently alter child’s metabolic structure, predisposing them to obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Protecting Childhood Health

After birth, the best way to prevent metabolic syndrome in children is through a healthy diet and weight management. By reducing body fat, increasing good (HDL) cholesterol, and correcting high triglyceride levels, it is possible to prevent or reverse metabolic syndrome. 

Doctors are also working to develop better screening practices for metabolic syndrome in children, the first of which is neck circumference. Since BMI is a poor indicator of body fat, adding neck circumference to child health assessments can help doctors better assess body fat levels and distribution. It also can help doctors determine if a child is at risk for sleep apnea, which can increase the risk of obesity and related health problems.

Metabolic syndrome can point towards serious health issues, but more importantly, it’s an early warning sign of potential future health problems, and that means you can do something about it. Early intervention can make a difference and reduce the likelihood of more serious diseases later in life.