Childhood Obesity

Many people wrongly believe children cannot become obese. This is far from correct. More and more children are becoming overweight and obese in the U.S. each year. In fact, the percentage of overweight children and adolescents has tripled over the past 40 years. Many health experts worry those extra pounds may make today’s children the first generation of Americans to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

What is obesity?
When children eat more calories than their bodies are able to burn up, the extra calories get converted to fat and stored in the child’s body. This leads to obesity, and can begin as early as age 5 or 6. Overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults, so it is vital that parents help their children learn healthier eating behaviors and get the recommended amount of physical activity. Without help, children can enter a cycle of unhealthy behaviors that can lead to a lifelong battle with their weight and their health.

What causes obesity?
Children are considered to be “obese” when their weight is 10% higher than what is recommended for their height and body type. Whether or not a child becomes obese can be influenced by genetics, biology, behavior, and culture. When one parent is obese, a child has a 50% chance of becoming obese. If both parents are obese, the child has an 80% chance of becoming obese. Less than 1% of all obesity is caused by medical disorders.

Some factors that can lead to childhood obesity include:

  • poor eating habits,
  • overeating or binging,
  • lack of exercise,
  • family history,
  • family issues or trouble with peers,
  • low self-esteem, and
  • stressful life changes (parent’s divorce, moving, death of a loved one).

What happens to a child who is obese?
Children who are overweight or obese are at increased risk of experiencing the following:

  • heart disease,
  • high blood pressure,
  • diabetes,
  • breathing problems,
  • difficulty sleeping,
  • depression,
  • low self-esteem,
  • anxiety, and
  • obsessive compulsive disorder.

What can parents do to help?
Parents of obese children can help improve their self-esteem by offering encouragement and praise, and by focusing on the child’s strengths, not their weight issues. Parents should have their child evaluated by a health care provider before starting any kind of a weight loss program. If there is no medical reason for the child’s obesity, then the only way to lose the weight is to reduce the number of calories the child eats, and increase the physical activity.

Parents can help motivate a child to make healthier choices by modeling healthy behaviors themselves. Healthy eating and exercise can become family activities everyone participates in.

Other suggestions for helping a child make healthier choices include—

  • Change the family’s eating habits.
    • Eat meals at the table as a family, not in front of the TV.
    • Eat more slowly and enjoy conversation together.
    • Serve meals at the same time each day.
    • Limit fatty or salty snacks.
    • Plan meals in advance, and let children be part of the planning and meal preparation process.
    • Control portion size.
    • Don’t use food as a reward.
    • Encourage your child to make healthy food choices at school.
  • Change the family’s leisure activities
    • Turn off the TV and get active.
    • Choose physical activities the whole family can participate in, like walking, swimming, or bicycling.
    • Find time to go outside together every day.
    • Set a good example by showing that physical activity is a priority to you.

    Remember, obesity can begin very early in life, so healthy food choices are important even for an infant. Children need the guidance and help of responsible adults to start them on the right track and keep them there.