Obesity in childhood is a growing concern in the United States and beyond. While lifestyle factors are responsible for most cases of weight gain in children, hormone-related conditions may also be a cause.

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Obesity in childhood is defined as a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for a given age and sex, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This condition affects nearly 20% of children in the United States. That’s roughly 14.7 million people under 18 years old.

Lifestyle factors like diet and physical activity are considered the primary cause of weight gain in children. However, secondary causes — like endocrine disorders — may also lead to obesity in some cases.

Learn more about childhood obesity.

The endocrine system sends messages throughout the body by secreting hormones into the blood. When these hormones are disrupted, they may lead to a variety of symptoms and health conditions, including weight gain.

There are various hormones that may contribute to developing obesity over time.

Thyroid hormone

Weight gain is a hallmark symptom of hypothyroidism. This condition is the result of the thyroid gland in the next producing too little thyroid hormone (T4).

Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • slow growth (height)
  • delayed puberty
  • weight gain
  • fatigue
  • dry skin
  • depression


In rare cases, a child may develop Cushing syndrome due to high levels of the hormone cortisol. Benign tumors called adenomas located on the adrenal glands may cause this condition.

Symptoms of Cushing syndrome include:

  • slowed growth
  • weight gain, particularly around the abdomen
  • hypertension

Growth hormone

The pituitary gland produces growth hormone. When not enough of this hormone is excreted into the blood, a child may develop growth hormone deficiency and related weight gain.

Symptoms of growth hormone deficiency include:

  • low energy levels
  • weakness
  • osteoporosis (later in life)

Sex hormones

Hypogonadism is a condition caused by issues with testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, or pituitary hormones. Research specifically links low testosterone levels to weight gain and obesity in males.

Symptoms of hypogonadism include:

  • slow growth
  • delayed puberty
  • obesity
  • delayed genital development
  • low muscle mass

Parathyroid hormone

The inherited condition pseudohypoparathyroidism (type 1a) may lead to obesity. With this condition, the parathyroid gland produces enough parathyroid hormone, but the body’s metabolism is resistant to it.

There are many possible symptoms of pseudohypoparathyroidism (type 1a). More frequent symptoms include:


An insulinoma is a tumor on the pancreas that causes excessive amounts of the hormone insulin to flood the body. This condition may lead to hypoglycemia, excessive hunger, and — as a result — weight gain.

Symptoms of insulinoma include:

  • anxiety
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • excessive hunger
  • weight gain
  • confusion


Male hormones like testosterone are also called androgens. In polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a female has an imbalance of androgens that leads to symptoms like skipped periods and weight retention.

Symptoms of PCOS include:

  • skipped menstrual periods or amenorrhea
  • excess hair growth on the face, chest, etc.
  • severe acne and oily skin
  • weight gain, specifically around the waist

When hormonal balance is disrupted, the body’s signals for satiety (fullness) may be interrupted and lead to an increased appetite.

At the same time, hormonal imbalance can also slow or speed up metabolism, which is the rate at which the body burns energy. A slow metabolism means that the body may not quickly use any excess calories coming in, leading to those calories accumulating as fat.

Hormones also regulate where fat accumulates in the body. Any excess fat stores produce yet another hormone called leptin, a hormone that normally reduces appetite. When a person has high levels of leptin, their body loses sensitivity to this effect.

Hormone levels can be tested with a simple blood test. Your doctor will use your child’s medical history, symptoms, and suspected diagnosis to determine which hormones to test for in the blood sample.

Additional testing may include:

Treatment depends on the underlying cause. Some hormone conditions can be treated by supplementing the missing hormones via injection or oral medication. Others may require surgery or other treatment to address issues like tumors or injuries that are causing hormone imbalances.

Once the root condition is treated, lifestyle changes like eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of physical activity may encourage weight loss. Your doctor may also refer you to a dietitian to create a dietary and physical activity program that works best for your child.

Again, hormonally caused obesity is considered less common than obesity caused by lifestyle factors. Still, endocrine conditions may affect children and adults alike. Researchers explain that early detection is key in supporting the best outcome for a child.

Treating the underlying hormone issue may help a child lose weight and avoid obesity-related complications like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Speak with your doctor if you have concerns about your child’s weight. Be sure to take note of any other symptoms your child may be experiencing like slow growth, tiredness, or delayed puberty.

Weight gain and obesity in children are typically related to their dietary plan and physical activity level. However, if your child has other symptoms, a hormone condition may be the cause.