Childhood Obesity

Written by Erica Roth | Published on August 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Childhood Obesity?

Children who have a body mass index (BMI) higher than 95 percent of their peers are considered to be obese (CDC). Body mass index is a term used to determine what is called “weight status.” BMI is calculated using a person’s height, weight, age, and gender.

Childhood obesity is a serious health threat to children. Kids in the obese category have surpassed simply being overweight and are at risk for a number of chronic health conditions. Poor health stemming from childhood obesity can continue into adulthood.

Childhood obesity does not just affect physical health, according to the Mayo Clinic. Children and teens who are overweight and obese can become depressed and have poor self-image and self-esteem (Mayo Clinic).

Causes of Childhood Obesity

Family history, psychological factors, and lifestyle all play a role in childhood obesity. Children whose parents or other family members are overweight or obese are more likely to follow suit. But the main cause of childhood obesity is a combination of eating too much and exercising too little.

A poor diet containing high levels of fat and few nutrients can cause kids to gain weight quickly. Fast food, candy, and soft drinks are common culprits. Studies performed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) show that up to 52 percent of teenagers drink 24 oz. or more of soda daily (HHS).

Convenience foods, such as frozen dinners, salty snacks, and canned pastas can also contribute to unhealthy weight gain. Some children become obese because their parents do not know how to choose or prepare healthy foods. Other families may not be able to easily afford fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.

Inadequate physical activity can be another cause of childhood obesity. People of all ages tend to gain weight when they are less active. Exercise burns calories and helps you maintain a healthy weight. Children who are not encouraged to be active do not have the opportunity to burn extra calories through sports, time on the playground, or other forms of physical activity.

Psychological issues may also lead to obesity in some children. Kids and teens who are bored, stressed, or depressed may eat to cope with negative emotions.

Health Risks Associated With Childhood Obesity

Children who are obese have a higher risk of developing health problems than their peers who maintain a healthy weight. Diabetes, heart disease, and asthma are among the most serious risks.

Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which your child’s body does not metabolize glucose properly. Diabetes can lead to eye disease, nerve damage, and kidney dysfunction. Children and adults who are overweight are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. However, the condition may be reversible through diet and lifestyle changes.

Heart Disease

High cholesterol and high blood pressure create a high risk of heart disease in obese children. Foods that are high in fat and salt can cause cholesterol and blood pressure levels to rise. Heart attack and stroke are two potential complications of heart disease.

Asthma

Asthma is chronic inflammation of the lung’s airways. Excessive weight can keep your child’s lungs from developing normally. Asthma and respiratory infections are a possible risk of childhood obesity.

Sleep Disorders

Kids and teens who are obese may also suffer from sleep disorders, such as excessive snoring and sleep apnea. This is because extra weight in the neck area can block the airways.

Joint Pain

Your child may also experience joint stiffness, pain, and limited range of motion from carrying excess weight. In many cases, losing weight can eliminate joint problems.

Healthy Eating & Nutrition for Obese Children

Changing the eating habits of obese children is absolutely essential. Most kids eat what their parents buy, so healthy eating needs to start with you. Parental influence is what shapes your child’s eating patterns, explains the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Start your nutrition overhaul by limiting sweets and soft drinks in your home. Even 100 percent juice drinks are very caloric. Instead, serve water and nonfat milk with meals. Cut back your fast food consumption and make a conscious effort to cook more. Preparing a meal and eating together is not only healthy in a nutritional sense, but is also an excellent way to sneak in some family time.

Center your meals and snacks around fresh foods instead of processed items, baked goods, or salty snacks. Try:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables
  • lean proteins, such as chicken, pork, and fish
  • whole grains, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-grain breads
  • low-fat dairy products, including skim milk, fat-free yogurt, and low-fat cheese

Chances are good that your overweight or obese child will drop some weight as he or she transitions to a healthier way of eating. Consult your pediatrician if weight loss does not occur. You may need additional help from a nutritionist or dietician.

Lifestyle Changes to Fight Childhood Obesity

Increase your child’s level of physical activity to help him or her shed weight safely. Stress the word “activity” instead of using terms like “exercise” or “workout” to keep them interested. Playing hopscotch outside, for example, may be more appealing to a 7-year-old than jogging around the block. Perhaps encourage your child to try a sport for which he or she has expressed an interest.

Find activities the entire family can enjoy together. This is not only a great way to bond, but also helps your child learn by example. Hiking, swimming, or even playing tag can keep your child to be active and on the path to a healthier weight. Be sure to vary activities to prevent boredom.

Limit screen time, too. Kids who watch several hours of television, play computer games, or are constantly using their smartphones or other devices are less likely to get enough exercise. Children who are sedentary are more likely to become obese.

The CDC recommends that children get at least one hour’s worth of exercise daily to remain healthy (CDC).

Outlook for Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a serious issue in the United States. However, with proper education and support, children can learn healthier ways to cope with their problems, prepare meals, and stay active. This support must come from the adults in each child’s life: parents, teachers, and other caregivers.

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