(Reposted from 2017)

Childhood obesity is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) is obese.

Why Does Childhood Obesity Matter?

As you know, excess weight can cause many health problems, especially in children, who can suffer from asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, and risk factors for heart disease, hypertension, early puberty, and orthopedic problems.

Children who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer bullying, which can lead to social isolation, depression, and a lower self-esteem, along with eating disorders and behavior and learning problems. Finally, children who are obese are apt to remain so into adulthood, which further risks their health, leading to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Defining Childhood Obesity

Children grow at different rates and in different ways, so a child who looks larger than his peers may not be overweight or obese.

You probably have heard of Body Mass Index or BMI. To calculate BMI, divide weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters. A child is considered overweight if his/her BMI is at or above the 85th percentile, but below the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex. A child is obese if his/her BMI is at or above the 95th percentile. (This is different than how we categorize overweight and obesity in adults, who are no longer growing.)

There have been some changes in obesity rates due to more awareness of the issue. Despite those declines in the early 2000s, from 2011-2014, the prevalence of obesity remained about the same. About 17 percent of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese — which is 12.7 million people.

Risk Factors

Poor diet and lack of exercise can cause childhood obesity. Genetics can also play a role. Some children overeat for psychological reasons, to cope with emotions or to fight boredom. Sleep also plays a role; children who lack a bedtime routine and do not get enough sleep are often heavier than their peers.

Socioeconomic status may lead to childhood obesity in households where less-healthy food is cheaper, quicker to prepare, and won’t spoil easily. According to statistics, children in low-income households are far more likely to be overweight or obese.

childhood obesity complications

Prevention and Cures

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Managing childhood obesity starts at home but extends to the community. One of the best approaches is to improve the eating and exercise habits of your entire family. Parents can encourage their children to eat healthy and get physical activity in many ways:

  • Make sure children get adequate sleep.
  • Follow the AAP’s recommendations on daily screen time.
  • Take part in regular physical activity as a family. Participate in National Family Health and Fitness Day September 24.
  • Substitute higher nutrient, lower calorie foods, such as fruit and vegetables, in place of foods with added sugars and solid fats.
  • Steer away from processed foods. Encourage whole-grains.
  • Serve fruits and vegetables as snacks (a goal of 5 servings is ideal!).
  • Serve water instead of sweetened beverages.
  • Get tips for parents and caregivers to establish healthy eating patterns.

As a community, we can work to reduce the rate of childhood obesity. Here are some of the ways communities are addressing the problem:

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP) help low-income families buy more nutritious foods.
  • Schools can help by creating policies and practices that support healthy eating, regular physical activity, and by providing opportunities for students to learn about and practice these behaviors.
  • Childcare providers can encourage regular physical activity and healthful eating.

If you have concerns about your child’s weight, contact our pediatric providers to discuss your child’s weight and whether it’s cause for concern.