Childhood obesity is a complex and growing epidemic that not only puts children at risk for a lifetime of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, but it also creates a financial burden as well. According to a new study published in the journal Obesity, nearly one out of every four children in Australia is overweight or obese by the time they start school, and it’s costing the country millions each year.

"Childhood obesity is a serious public health issue, and is becoming an increasing problem in children under five years old," said the study’s lead researcher Alison Hayes, associate professor of health economics at the University, in a statement. "In addition to the health impacts of childhood obesity, there are major economic impacts, which may occur earlier than previously thought.”

For the study, researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia collected all of the medical tests, diagnostics, medicines, and hospital admission data from 350 children in Australia at ages 2, 3 and a half, and 5 years old. They found that the health care costs for obese preschoolers were 60 percent higher than costs for healthy kids. Obese children were also two to three times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for respiratory disorders along with ear, nose, mouth, and throat diseases.

Obese Children
Childhood obesity burdens the health care system's financial future as young preschoolers age into unhealthy adults. Photo courtesy of Fred Dufour/Getty Images

"We know that children who are obese in early childhood are more likely to be obese in later childhood, adolescence and adulthood, which can lead to serious chronic diseases that have a huge impact on our health care system,” explained Hayes. “Early prevention of obesity is important to improve children's health, but there are also likely to be immediate savings in healthcare costs. Preventing obesity in the early childhood years may be a cost-effective way to tackle the obesity crisis, improve the nation's health and reduce the economic burden of obesity."

Hayes also noted that throughout the world, 6.9 percent of children under the age of five are either overweight or obese; however, countries such as Australia, America, and the UK have rates as high as 23 percent. According to the Centers for Disease control and Prevention, over the last 30 years in America, obesity has more than doubled among children and quadrupled among adolescents.

"We are raising our children in a world that is vastly different than it was 40 or 50 years ago," obesity physician Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, told Scientific American. "Childhood obesity is a disease of the environment. It's a natural consequence of normal kids with normal genes being raised in unhealthy, abnormal environments."

The most recent estimated annual medical costs for obese adults were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight adults. According to the Obesity Society, overweight and obese preschoolers are five times more likely to grow up to be overweight and obese as adults. So in order to lower the rates of obesity in future generations, experts are looking at potential preventive measures for children.

The issue is complex, but the solution to lowering obesity rates and soaring healthcare costs may not be more recess or after-school sports, but rather a dietary intervention. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends parents of overweight or obese children should consult their pediatrician on ways to improve their everyday diet, which includes cutting empty calories and foods high in saturated fats and added sugars.

"This is a lot more complicated than ‘eat less, exercise more,'” Freedhoof added. "What we've seen for so many years is research looking at physical activity as the preventative or the curative solution for childhood obesity, but the data on physical activity as a means to set children's weight is abysmal."

Source: Hayes A, Simpson J, Chevalier A, D’Souza M, Baur L, and Wen LM. Early childhood obesity: Association with Healthcare expenditure in Australia. Obesity. 2016.