Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a serious health problem in America, and it increases the risk that a person will be obese as a teen and as an adult. This article will explain more about the risks of childhood obesity, childhood obesity statistics, and ways to prevent or change it.


Childhood obesity statistics indicate that, in 1980, 6.5 % of 6-11 years olds were considered obese. In 2006 that number had risen to 17%. Among 12 to 19 year olds the number of those facing obesity tripled, from 5% to 17.6% Also, those who are obese now tend to be even heavier than in the past.

The risks of childhood obesity

Children need to gain weight as they grow, but if they gain more weight than their body needs it can lead to health problems. Because it can be hard to tell if a child’s weight is healthy, parents should take children for yearly well-child doctor visits to find out if there are any problems.

Some of the problems associated with childhood obesity include:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart Disease
  • Asthma
  • Sleep apnea
  • Liver disease
  • Early onset of puberty
  • Bone and joint pain and problems
  • Gall bladder disease
  • Skin infections
  • Eating disorders
  • Low self esteem
  • Bullying
  • Depression
  • Lost learning opportunities
  • Behavior problems
  • Increased risk for substance abuse

70% of obese 5 to 17 year olds have a risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. Between 20 and 25% have preliminary signs of type 2 diabetes. The increased rates of childhood obesity are making these diseases, which used to be seen mostly in older adults, more common among children and teens.

How to prevent or reverse childhood obesity

In some rare cases, childhood obesity is caused by medical conditions that must be treated by a doctor, but most cases of childhood obesity can be cured by lifestyle changes, including a healthier diet and more exercise. Obesity is usually caused by eating more calories than one needs, so healthy eating and more movement generally fix or prevent childhood obesity.

Because children have nutritional needs that will affect their health as adults, it is important that they not be put on any special diets without a doctor’s supervision. Young people especially should not be put on fad diets that require them to eat very few calories or only certain foods, unless a doctor deems it necessary. Having a healthy, well-balanced diet, however, benefits everyone in the family.

Don’t use food to comfort a child or try to influence his or her behavior. You also shouldn’t forbid any food or say it’s bad or kids may sneak it behind your back, though there are some foods that should only be offered occasionally:

  • Fast food and restaurant foods
  • Packaged foods like chips, crackers, and fruit snacks
  • Pre-made or packaged meals
  • Candy and desserts
  • Soda, punch, flavored milk, and energy drinks - limit fruit juice to one glass per day

Here are some tips on helping kids and teens eat healthy meals:

  • Load up on fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean meat, and low fat or skim dairy products, and get the junk food out of the house.
  • In general, kids eat too much fat, salt, and sugar, and not enough fiber. Start reading food labels so you know what’s in what you are serving, and be aware of how much is in a serving size. 
  • Watch out for “healthy” snacks loaded with sugar (which turns into fat in the body), like granola bars, some cereals, and low fat cookies and crackers.
  • Don’t cut out all fat - it helps kids feel full. Try to avoid trans fat and limit saturated fats. Opt for the healthier mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Cook as much of your meals from scratch as possible so you can control what goes into them.
  • Give kids a variety of healthy choices to pick from. Let them help you pick out fruits or vegetables from the store and decide on healthy meals and they will be more likely to eat the healthy foods.
  • Don’t give kids huge portion sizes, and don’t force them to clean their plates - this can encourage overeating.
  • Don’t eat in front of the TV, which also leads to overeating. Whenever possible eat together at the table.
  • Encourage your local schools to do away with soda and junk food in vending machines and offer healthy options at lunch. If school lunch choices are unhealthy, consider packing a lunch.

In addition to healthy food, kids also need some type of physical activity for at least an hour a day. Their time in front of the TV or computer should be limited to 2 hours, except for homework. Try having a family TV instead of TVs in the kids’ bedrooms.

When you are encouraging your kids to be active, focus on having fun and being healthy, and not on the child’s weight. There are many ways families can get exercise together, which sets a good example for kids and helps the whole family stay healthy:

  • Go on walks
  • Play informal sports together, like basketball or catch
  • Swim
  • Hike
  • Ride bikes
  • Garden
  • Try some of the active video games together
  • Get a kickball and have kids make up their own game

While fighting childhood obesity, remember to show your children that you love them regardless of weight, and never make them feel guilt or afraid because of their size. Don’t make negative comments about your own weight or anyone else’s. Finally, encourage your child to get enough sleep every night, since sleep seems to help combat obesity.

Sources:

MayoClinic, "Childhood Obesity" [online]

Center for Disease Control, Healthy Youth!, "Childhood Obesity" [online]

Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Newsline, "Childhood Obesity" [online]

The Obesity Society, "Childhood Overweight" [online]

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