Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity affects nearly one in five children and young adults ages 6-19. As obesity can lead to serious health problems that continue into adulthood, it’s a condition that must be taken seriously.
The childhood obesity trendline is worsening. Despite advances in medicine and better information about how to keep children healthy, the childhood obesity rate is increasing. Consider:
- The percentage of children and adolescents who are considered obese has tripled since the 1970s.
- In Texas, the percentage of high school students considered obese rose to 17% in 2019, an increase from 13% in 2009.
Childhood obesity is a serious health problem that can lead to chronic health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension. For many young people, it can also lead to low self-esteem, decreased interest in school and social activities and an increased likelihood to be bullied.
Obesity is generally defined as a weight that is 20% higher than the average for the child’s age and height. Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend children be screened for obesity and overweightness utilizing the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is a simple equation – the person’s weight divided by the height, squared: weight ÷ (height x height). For adults age 20 and over, the BMI score indicates if someone is underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese.
For children, teens and young adults, the BMI calculation is more nuanced. The age and gender of the child is factored in to help determine the BMI and then the result is evaluated in the context of BMI results across the entire population of children the same age and gender.
There are a variety of BMI calculators for both adults and children online, but for children, it’s best to let the pediatrician calculate the BMI and interpret the results, as there are a number of variables that help determine what range the child falls in. Even if a BMI score appears high for a child’s age and gender, it does not necessarily indicate obesity or overweightness. A pediatrician may perform additional evaluation and take into account other physical and environmental factors, such as diet and physical activity.
Natural Causes of Obesity
When thinking about obesity, it’s natural to first think about diet and the amount of physical activity someone gets – those are important factors, to be sure. But there may be natural, underlying causes, as well.
For example, obesity can be hereditary. The role metabolism plays in how quickly a person burns calories is one of the most important factors that determines if someone is normal weight or overweight. Metabolic tempo can vary as much as 20% in people. That means two children could eat the same amount of food and then get the same amount of exercise and the one with a slower metabolism may burn significantly fewer calories than the other.
Insulin resistance, which some children are born with, is another condition that can contribute to obesity. Insulin resistance leads to the body storing extra sugar, instead of burning it.
Low leptin levels may be another contributing factor. Cells produce leptin to signal the brain when we are full; a leptin deficiency can lead to a person overeating.
All of these conditions are outside a child’s control or that of their parents. However, parents working together with their child’s pediatrician, can develop strategies to treat or manage them.
Tips for Healthy Eating
Whether someone has a pre-existing health condition or not, the number of calories consumed and burned plays a major role in the weight of children, just as it does for adults. Whether working to reduce your child’s weight or simply maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle, here are a few ideas that will benefit the entire family:
- Pre-make as many meals as possible on Sunday, before the hectic school and work week gets underway. For example, grill or roast chicken and keep it in the fridge so it can be used for quick, healthy meals later in the week.
- Double or triple a recipe over the weekend that can be used as leftovers throughout the week or put in the freezer for future meals.
- Stock up on frozen vegetables. These are relatively inexpensive, don’t go bad and can be cooked in a matter of minutes on the stove or in the microwave. Frozen vegetables generally are just as healthy as fresh ones, and are a far superior choice to canned vegetables, which tend to be loaded with sodium and sugar.
- For snacks, grab enough fresh fruit that will keep for several days – apples, unripe bananas and oranges are good choices. Steer clear of canned fruits, which are high in sugar and calories.
- Provided they aren’t loaded with sugar, granola bars can be a good choice. So is microwave popcorn that is light on butter and salt.
- Maybe you find out your child hates cooked carrots but likes them raw. Experiment with serving healthy foods different ways – you may be surprised what your child embraces.
- Be mindful of portion sizes. Use measuring cups and kitchen scales to measure foods in proper quantities.
- Reserve desserts such as ice cream, candy and cookies for special occasions. They should not be an everyday expectation.
- Some breakfast cereals are great for kids, but others have way too much sugar or limited fiber in them to be healthy. Look for cereals lower in sugar and higher in fiber and top with some fresh or previously frozen fruit.
- It’s not just food you have to watch – it’s drinks, also. Low-fat milk (2% or less) and water are always good options. Don’t allow chocolate milk, soft drinks, artificial juices, fruit punch and sports drinks – all are high in sugar and have little to no nutritional value. And while natural fruit juices may be high in some vitamins, they also have lots of sugar and are not recommended. Eating fruit is great, but fruit juice is a common contributor to obesity in children.
- Lead by example: children mimic their parents. If your child sees you eating – and enjoying – healthy foods, they will learn from your example and imitate your behavior over time.
One of the biggest obstacles to children getting enough exercise is the many distractions they experience. Television, video games, tablets, phones – all of these electronic devices can provide hours of entertainment and quickly become addictive to young people. If your child is staring at a screen for hours on end, chances are he or she is also not moving. That type of sedentary lifestyle can contribute to obesity.
The goal is to get at least one hour of physical activity per day and to limit screen time to no more than two hours per day. One way to ensure your children get enough exercise is to build in regular family activities – this could be a hike, a bike ride, swimming, etc. In addition, children who join an organized activity such as a sports team or scouts are sure to get more time moving around.
Given the increased risk an obese child faces for developing a variety of health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, working to achieve and maintain a healthy weight in childhood will pay off throughout life.
The most important thing parents can do if their child is obese is to be supportive and loving as they work together to get to healthier weight. Any child can be susceptible to bullying at school or elsewhere and overweight kids may be more likely to be picked on by their peers. Having open lines of communication with your child is very important to pick up on any indications of bullying or self-esteem issues.
For children who are overweight, losing weight will do a lot to boost their self-esteem and confidence. These positive effects will spill over into academic and extra-curricular activities, as well as help with friendships and relationships with others.
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