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Overweight Kids Risk Liver Damage

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June 26, 2000 -- Being fat when you're a kid can do more than harm your self-esteem. Childhood obesity has now been shown to lead to yet another disease in children: liver disease. Even more alarming is the finding that obese teens who drink even modest amounts of alcohol are at even higher risk for developing chronic liver problems, according to a recent study.

Obese teens are at increased risk for developing a condition known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, in which fat is built up in the liver and eventually causes scar tissue to form. This scar tissue increases the risk of developing a severe liver disease, called cirrhosis, in later life.

Obesity is one of the risk factors for this condition. Other risk factors include diabetes, inadequate protein in the diet, heart disease, and previous treatment with steroids.

Although more common in adults, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis is being seen more frequently in children because of the growing number of children who are either overweight or obese.

In the study from a recent issue of TheJournal of Pediatrics, Richard S. Strauss, MD, and other researchers found that 8% of obese adolescents aged 12 to 18 reported modest alcohol intake of at least four drinks per month. Of these, half had an abnormal liver function test.

Children of normal weight who consumed the same amount of alcohol showed no such abnormalities in liver functioning. In addition, obese teens who drank regularly were 10 times more likely to have abnormalities than obese teens who drank less or not at all. Overall, 92% of these obese teens regularly drinking were boys.

The interaction between obesity and teen drinking "is particularly important because adolescent alcohol ingestion may lead to the rapid development of cirrhosis," write Strauss and colleagues.

Teen-agers, their parents, and pediatricians should be aware of this risk, talk openly about it, and work to overcome problems with obesity and teen drinking, says Ronald J. Sokol, MD, in an editorial that accompanied the study.

Sokol stresses the importance of managing obesity in children, stressing that it not only causes problems in childhood but may also foreshadow health problems as adults.

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