What is childhood obesity?
Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. Children who are obese are above the normal weight for their age and height.
Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once considered adult problems — diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Many obese children become obese adults, especially if one or both parents are obese. Childhood obesity can also lead to poor self-esteem and depression.
One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the eating and exercise habits of your entire family. Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect your child’s health now and in the future.
How common is childhood obesity?
Childhood obesity is extremely common. It is a serious problem in the United States putting kids at risk for poor health. Despite recent declines in the prevalence among preschool-aged children, obesity amongst all children is still too high. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of childhood obesity?
Not all children carrying extra pounds are overweight or obese. Some children have larger than average body frames. And children normally carry different amounts of body fat at the various stages of development. So you might not know just by looking at your child if weight is a health concern.
The body mass index (BMI), which provides a guideline of weight in relation to height, is the accepted measure of overweight and obesity. Your child’s doctor can help you figure out if your child’s weight could pose health problems by using growth charts, the BMI and, if necessary, other tests.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.
What causes childhood obesity?
Children become overweight and obese for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of these factors. Only in rare cases is being overweight caused by a medical condition such as a hormonal problem. A physical exam and some blood tests can rule out the possibility of a medical condition as the cause for obesity.
Although weight problems run in families, not all children with a family history of obesity will be overweight. Children whose parents or brothers or sisters are overweight may be at an increased risk of becoming overweight themselves, but this can be linked to shared family behaviors such as eating and activity habits.
A child’s total diet and activity level play an important role in determining a child’s weight. Today, many children spend a lot time being inactive. For example, the average child spends approximately four hours each day watching television. As computers and video games become increasingly popular, the number of hours of inactivity may increase.
What increases my risk for childhood obesity?
There are many risk factors for childhood obesity, such as:
- Regularly eating high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, baked goods and vending machine snacks, can easily cause your child to gain weight. Candy and desserts also can cause weight gain, and more and more evidence points to sugary drinks, including fruit juices, as culprits in obesity in some people.
- Lack of exercise. Children who don’t exercise much are more likely to gain weight because they don’t burn as many calories. Too much time spent in sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, also contributes to the problem.
- Family factors. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be more likely to put on weight. This is especially true in an environment where high-calorie foods are always available and physical activity isn’t encouraged.
- Psychological factors. Personal, parental and family stress can increase a child’s risk of obesity. Some children overeat to cope with problems or to deal with emotions, such as stress, or to fight boredom. Their parents may have similar tendencies.
- Socioeconomic factors. People in some communities have limited resources and limited access to supermarkets. As a result, they may opt for convenience foods that don’t spoil quickly, such as frozen meals, crackers and cookies. In addition, people who live in lower income neighborhoods might not have access to a safe place to exercise.
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is childhood obesity diagnosed?
As part of regular well-child care, the doctor calculates your child’s BMI and determines where it falls on the BMI-for-age growth chart. The BMI helps indicate if your child is overweight for his or her age and height.
Using the growth chart, your doctor determines your child’s percentile, meaning how your child compares with other children of the same sex and age. For example, if your child is in the 80th percentile, it means that compared with other children of the same sex and age, 80 percent have a lower weight or BMI.
Cutoff points on these growth charts, established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, help identify children who are overweight and obese:
- BMI between 85th and 94th percentiles — overweight
- BMI 95th percentile or above — obesity
Because BMI doesn’t consider things such as being muscular or having a larger than average body frame and because growth patterns vary greatly among children, your doctor also factors in your child’s growth and development. This helps determine whether your child’s weight is a health concern.
In addition to BMI and charting weight on the growth charts, the doctor evaluates:
- Your family’s history of obesity and weight-related health problems, such as diabetes
- Your child’s eating habits
- Your child’s activity level
- Other health conditions your child may have
- Psychosocial history, including incidences of depression and sleep disturbances and sadness and whether your child has friends or is the target of bullying
Your child’s doctor might order blood tests if he or she finds that your child is obese. These tests might include:
- A cholesterol test
- A blood sugar test
- Other blood tests to check for hormone imbalances, vitamin D deficiency or other conditions associated with obesity
Some of these tests require that your child not eat or drink anything before the test. Ask if your child needs to fast before a blood test and for how long.
How is childhood obesity treated?
Treatment for childhood obesity is based on your child’s age and if he or she has other medical conditions. Treatment usually includes changes in your child’s eating habits and physical activity level. In certain circumstances, treatment might include medications or weight-loss surgery.
Treatment for children who are overweight
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than 2 and adolescents whose weight falls in the overweight category be put on a weight-maintenance program to slow the progress of weight gain. This strategy allows the child to add inches in height but not pounds, causing BMI to drop over time into a healthier range.
Treatment for children who are obese
Children ages 6 to 11 who are obese might be encouraged to modify their eating habits for gradual weight loss of no more than 1 pound (or about 0.5 kilogram) a month. Older children and adolescents who are obese or severely obese might be encouraged to modify their eating habits to aim for weight loss of up to 2 pounds (or about 1 kilogram) a week.
The methods for maintaining your child’s current weight or losing weight are the same: Your child needs to eat a healthy diet — both in terms of type and amount of food — and increase physical activity. Success depends largely on your commitment to helping your child make these changes.
Parents are the ones who buy groceries, cook meals and decide where the food is eaten. Even small changes can make a big difference in your child’s health.
- When food shopping, choose fruits and vegetables. Cut back on convenience foods — such as cookies, crackers and prepared meals — which are often high in sugar, fat and calories. Always have healthy snacks available.
- Limit sweetened beverages. This includes those that contain fruit juice. These drinks provide little nutritional value in exchange for their high calories. They also can make your child feel too full to eat healthier foods.
- Limit fast food. Many of the menu options are high in fat and calories.
- Sit down together for family meals. Make it an event — a time to share news and tell stories. Discourage eating in front of a TV, computer or video game screen, which can lead to fast eating and lowered awareness of amount eaten.
- Serve appropriate portion sizes. Children don’t need as much food as adults do. Allow your child to eat until he or she is full, even if that means leaving food on the plate. And remember, when you eat out, restaurant portion sizes are often significantly oversized.
A critical part of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, especially for children, is physical activity. It burns calories, strengthens bones and muscles, and helps children sleep well at night and stay alert during the day.
Good habits established in childhood help adolescents maintain healthy weights despite the hormonal changes, rapid growth and social influences that often lead to overeating. And active children are more likely to become fit adults.
To increase your child’s activity level:
- Limit TV and recreational computer time. Time spent watching television or using computers, smartphones or tablets is known as screen time. Children younger than 18 months should avoid all screen time, except for video-chatting with family and friends. For older preschooolers, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming.
- Emphasize activity, not exercise. Children should be moderately to vigorously active for at least an hour a day. Your child’s activity doesn’t have to be a structured exercise program — the object is to get him or her moving. Free-play activities — such as playing hide-and-seek, tag or jump-rope — can be great for burning calories and improving fitness.
- Find activities your child likes. For instance, if your child is artistically inclined, go on a nature hike to collect leaves and rocks that your child can use to make a collage. If your child likes to climb, head for the nearest neighborhood jungle gym or climbing wall. If your child likes to read, then walk or bike to the neighborhood library for a book.
Medication might be prescribed for some adolescents as part of an overall weight-loss plan. The risks of taking a prescription medication over the long term are unknown, and the medication’s effect on weight loss and weight maintenance for adolescents is still in question.
Weight-loss surgery may be an option for severely obese adolescents who have been unable to lose weight through lifestyle changes. However, as with any type of surgery, there are potential risks and long-term complications. Also, the long-term effects of weight-loss surgery on future growth and development are largely unknown.
Weight-loss surgery in adolescents is uncommon. But your doctor might recommend this surgery if your child’s weight poses a greater health threat than do the potential risks of surgery. It’s important that a child being considered for weight-loss surgery meet with a team of pediatric specialists, including a pediatric endocrinologist, psychologist and dietitian.
Weight-loss surgery isn’t a miracle cure. It doesn’t guarantee that an adolescent will lose all of his or her excess weight or be able to keep it off long term. And surgery doesn’t replace the need for a healthy diet and regular physical activity.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage childhood obesity?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with childhood obesity:
- Be a role model. Choose healthy foods and active pastimes for yourself. If you need to lose weight, doing so will motivate your child to do likewise.
- Involve the whole family. Make healthy eating a priority and emphasize how important it is for everyone to be physically active. This avoids singling out the child who is overweight.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Childhood obesity. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-obesity/home/ovc-20268886. Accessed August 11, 2017.
Obesity in Children. http://www.webmd.com/children/guide/obesity-children. Accessed August 11, 2017. Accessed August 11, 2017.
Childhood Obesity Facts. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html. Accessed August 11, 2017.
Review Date: August 10, 2017 | Last Modified: August 11, 2017