Childhood obesity is an epidemic in the United States. If your child is overweight, you’re likely concerned about the risks this poses for his or her health. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the rate of childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s, now affecting one in five children between the ages of 6 and 19. These children are at increased risk for chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, and are more likely to experience bullying among their peers. Awareness of the causes of childhood obesity and the measures that can prevent this illness can help parents ensure that children set the stage for a long and healthy life.
When Is a Child Considered Obese?
Obesity in children is defined based on BMI, or body mass index, a measure of weight compared to height. Children who fall into the 95th percentile for weight for their age group are considered obese, while those above the 85th percentile are overweight and at risk for obesity.
What Health Complications Are Caused by Obesity?
Children who are obese are more likely to develop diseases once seen only in adults, such as type 2 diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, other common complications of childhood obesity include:
-Metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and excess abdominal fat. Having one or more of these conditions exponentially increases the risk for chronic illness.
-Future heart attack or stroke caused by years of cardiac stress from high blood pressure and high cholesterol
-Obstructive sleep apnea
-Non-alcoholic fatty disease, a condition that can cause liver damage and scarring
In addition to physical complications, emotional issues frequently arise from obesity. These include bullying by peers, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and even learning and behavior problems.
How Can I Help My Child Lose Weight?
Modeling healthy lifestyle choices as a family can help prevent your child from becoming obese. The American Heart Association recommends the following tactics:
- Encourage healthy eating habits by keeping plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grain products in the house. Avoid buying or preparing junk food, fatty foods, and sweets.
- Become familiar with portion sizes and make sure each meal your child eats has the recommended amount of each food group.
- Teach your child about the long-term benefits of physical fitness, including strong bones, lower blood pressure, less stress and anxiety, increased self-esteem, and weight management.
- Facilitate physical activity for your child by providing fun exercises like playing sports as a family, hiking at a local park, playing tag, swimming, or dancing. Children should play outdoors for at least 60 minutes a day when weather permits. Structured exercise is not required; it’s most important to facilitate an activity your child likes that will get him or her moving.
- Limit screen time to no more than two hours a day.
- Limit fast food; cook at home more often and make a point to sit down to meals together as a family.
Will My Child Receive Medical Treatment for Obesity?
If the pediatrician determines that your child is obese, he or she may order blood tests to check for complications like high cholesterol and high blood sugar. These tests can also detect a hormone imbalance or other underlying condition that could be contributing to the obesity. While lifestyle changes are the most important part of helping your child lose weight, medical treatment may be required if he or she is severely obese. This could include a calorie-restricted diet, or prescription medications for adolescents.
If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, talk to his or her pediatrician. He or she can provide support during your family journey to a healthy lifestyle.