Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start kids on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
One of the best strategies to combat excess weight in your child is to improve the diet and exercise levels of your entire family. This helps protect the health of your child now and in the future.
Causes of childhood obesity
Although there are some genetic and hormonal causes of childhood obesity, most excess weight is caused by kids eating too much and exercising too little. Children, unlike adults, need extra nutrients and calories to fuel their growth and development. So if they consume the calories needed for daily activities, growth and metabolism, they add pounds in proportion to their growth. But children who eat more calories than needed gain weight beyond what’s required to support their growing bodies.
Far less common than lifestyle issues are genetic diseases and hormonal disorders that can predispose a child to obesity. These diseases, such as Prader-Willi syndrome and Cushing’s syndrome, affect a very small proportion of children. In the general population, eating and exercise habits play a much larger role.
Many factors — usually working in combination — increase your child’s risk of becoming overweight:
- Diet. Regular consumption of high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, baked goods and vending machine snacks, contribute to weight gain. High-fat foods are dense in calories. Loading up on soft drinks, candy and desserts also can cause weight gain. Foods and beverages like these are high in sugar and calories.
- Inactivity. Sedentary kids are more likely to gain weight because they don’t burn calories through physical activity. Inactive leisure activities, such as watching television or playing video games, contribute to the problem.
- Genetics. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be genetically predisposed to put on excess weight, especially in an environment where high-calorie food is always available and physical activity isn’t encouraged.
- Psychological factors. Some children overeat to cope with problems or to deal with emotions, such as stress or boredom. Their parents may have similar tendencies.
- Family factors. Most children don’t shop for the family’s groceries. Indeed, parents are responsible for putting healthy foods in the kitchen at home and leaving unhealthy foods in the store. You can’t blame your kids for being attracted to sweet, salty and fatty foods; after all they taste good. But you can control much of their access to these foods, especially at home.
- Socioeconomic factors. Children from low-income backgrounds are at greater risk of becoming obese. Poverty and obesity often go hand in hand because low-income parents may lack the time and resources to make healthy eating and exercise a family priority.
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 his or her weight is a health concern.
If you’re worried that your child is putting on too much weight, talk to his or her doctor or health care provider. He or she can provide a complete weight assessment, taking into account your child’s individual history of growth and development, your family’s weight-for-height history, and where your child lands on the growth charts. These evaluations help determine if your child’s weight is in an unhealthy range.
Childhood obesity Diagnosis
As part of regular well-child care, the doctor calculates your child’s body mass index (BMI) and determines where it falls on the national BMI-for-age growth chart. The BMI indicates 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. So, for example, you might be told that your child is in the 80th percentile. This means that compared with other children of the same sex and age, 80 percent have a lower BMI.
Cutoff points on these growth charts, established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), help identify overweight and obese children:
- BMI-for-age between 85th and 94th percentiles — overweight
- BMI-for-age 95th percentile or above — obesity
Because BMI doesn’t consider things like being muscular or having a larger-than-average body frame and because growth patterns vary greatly among children, your doctor also factors your child’s growth and development into the overall weight assessment. 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 also evaluates:
- Your family’s history of obesity and weight-related health problems, such as diabetes
- Your child’s eating habits and calorie intake
- Your child’s activity level
- Other health conditions your child may have
Obese children can develop serious health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, often carrying these conditions into an obese adulthood. Overweight children are at higher risk of developing:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Asthma and other respiratory problems
- Sleep disorders
- Liver disease
- Early puberty or menarche
- Eating disorders
- Skin infections
The social and emotional fallout also can hurt your child. Being overweight can cause:
- Low self-esteem and bullying. Children often tease or bully their overweight peers, who suffer a loss of self-esteem and an increased risk of depression as a result.
- Behavior and learning problems. Overweight children tend to have more anxiety and poorer social skills than normal-weight children have. At one extreme, these problems may lead to acting out and disrupting the classroom. At the other, they may cause social withdrawal. Stress and anxiety also interfere with learning. School-related anxiety can create a vicious cycle in which ever-growing worry fuels ever-declining academic performance.
- Depression. Social isolation and low self-esteem create overwhelming feelings of hopelessness in some overweight children. When children lose hope that their lives will improve, they’re well on the way to depression. A depressed child may lose interest in normal activities, sleep more than usual or cry a lot. Some depressed children hide their sadness and appear emotionally flat instead. Either way, depression is as serious in children as in adults. If you think your child is depressed, talk with him or her and share your concerns with his or her doctor.
Treatment for childhood obesity
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 diet and level of physical activity. In certain circumstances, treatment may include medications or weight-loss surgery.
For children under age 7 who have no other health concerns, the goal of treatment may be weight maintenance rather than weight loss. This strategy allows the child to add inches but not pounds, causing BMI-for-age to drop over time into a healthier range. However, for an obese child, maintaining weight while waiting to grow taller may be as difficult as losing weight for older people.
Weight loss is typically recommended for children over age 7 or for younger children who have related health concerns. Weight loss should be slow and steady — anywhere from 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) a week to 1 pound a month, depending on your child’s situation.
The methods for maintaining weight or losing weight are the same: Your child needs to eat a healthy diet and increase his or her physical activity. Success depends largely on your commitment to helping your child make these changes. Think of eating habits and exercise habits as two sides of the same coin: When you consider one, you also need to consider the other.
Parents are the ones who buy the food, cook the food and decide where the food is eaten. Even small changes can make a big difference in your child’s health.
- When buying groceries, choose fruits and vegetables over convenience foods high in sugar and fat. Always have healthy snacks available. And never use food as a reward or punishment.
- Limit sweetened beverages, including those containing 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.
- Sit down together for family meals. Make it an event — a time to share news and tell stories. Discourage eating in front of a screen, such as a television, computer or video game. This leads to fast eating and lowered awareness of how much you’re eating.
- Limit the number of times you eat out, especially at fast-food restaurants. Many of the menu options are high in fat and calories.
A critical component of weight loss, especially for children, is physical activity. It not only burns calories but also builds strong bones and muscles and helps children sleep well at night and stay alert during the day. Such habits established in childhood help adolescents maintain healthy weight 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 recreational screen time to fewer than two hours a day. A surefire way to increase your child’s activity levels is to limit the number of hours he or she is allowed to watch television each day. Other sedentary activities — playing video and computer games or talking on the phone — also should be limited.
- Emphasize activity, not exercise. Your child’s activity doesn’t have to be a structured exercise program — the object is just 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 to do. 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.
- If you want an active child, be active yourself. Find fun activities that the whole family can do together. Never make exercise seem a punishment or a chore.
- Vary the activities. Let each child take a turn choosing the activity of the day or week. Batting practice, bowling and swimming all count. What matters is that you’re doing something active.
Two prescription weight-loss drugs are available for adolescents: sibutramine (Meridia) and orlistat (Xenical). Sibutramine, which is approved for adolescents older than 16, alters the brain’s chemistry to make the body feel fuller more quickly. Orlistat, which is approved for adolescents older than 12, prevents the absorption of fat in the intestines.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved a reduced-strength over-the-counter (nonprescription) version of orlistat (Alli). Though readily available in pharmacies and drugstores, Alli is not approved for children or teenagers under age 18.
Prescription medication isn’t often advisable for adolescents. The risks of taking the medications long term are still unknown, and their effect on weight loss and weight maintenance for adolescents is still questioned. And, once again, weight-loss drugs don’t replace the need to adopt a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
Weight-loss surgery can be a safe and effective option for some severely obese adolescents who have been unable to lose weight using conventional weight-loss methods. 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 a child’s future growth and development are largely unknown.
Weight-loss surgery in adolescents is still uncommon. But your doctor may recommend this surgery if your child’s weight poses a greater health threat than do the potential risks of surgery. It is important that a child being considered for weight-loss surgery meet with a team of pediatric specialists, including a pediatric endocrinologist.
Even so, surgery isn’t the easy answer for weight loss. It doesn’t guarantee that your child loses all of his or her excess weight or that your child keeps it off long term. It also doesn’t replace the need for following a healthy diet and regular physical activity program.
Whether your child is at risk of becoming overweight or currently at a healthy weight, you can take proactive measures to get or keep things on the right track.
- Schedule yearly well-child visits. Take your child to the doctor for well-child checkups at least once a year. During this visit, the doctor measures your child’s height and weight and calculates his or her BMI. Increases in your child’s BMI or in his or her percentile rank over one year, especially if your child is older than 4, is a possible sign that your child is at risk of becoming overweight.
- Set a good example. Make sure you eat healthy foods and exercise regularly to maintain your weight. Then, invite your child to join you.
- Avoid food-related power struggles with your child. You might unintentionally lay the groundwork for such battles by providing or withholding certain foods — sweets, for instance — as rewards or punishments. As a general rule, foods aren’t recommended for behavior modification in children.
- Emphasize the positive. Encourage a healthy lifestyle by highlighting the positive — the fun of playing outside or the variety of fresh fruit you can get year-round, for example. Emphasize the benefits of exercise apart from helping to manage their weight, for example, it makes their heart, lungs and other muscles stronger. If you foster your child’s natural inclination to run around, explore and eat only when hungry — not out of boredom — a healthy weight should take care of itself.
- Be patient. Many overweight children grow into their extra pounds as they get taller. Realize, too, that an intense focus on your child’s eating habits and weight can easily backfire, leading a child to overeat even more, or possibly making him or her more prone to developing an eating disorder.
Parents play a crucial role in helping children who are obese feel loved and in control of their weight. Take advantage of every opportunity to build your child’s self-esteem. Overweight children are at increased risk of low self-esteem because of the social emphasis on appearance and being slim. Don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of health and fitness, but do be sensitive that a child may view your concern as an insult. Talk to your kids directly, openly and without being critical or judgmental.
In addition, consider the following advice:
- Find reasons to praise your child’s efforts. Celebrate small, incremental changes, but don’t reward with food. Choose other ways to mark your child’s accomplishments, such as going to the bowling alley or a local park.
- Talk to your child about his or her feelings. Help your child find ways to deal with his or her emotions that don’t involve eating.
- Help your child focus on positive goals. For example, point out that he or she can now bike for more than 20 minutes without getting tired or can run the required number of laps in physical education class.