Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It's particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once considered adult problems — diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Childhood obesity can also lead to poor self-esteem and depression.
One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the eating and exercise habits of your entire family. Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect your child's health now and in the future.
Not all children carrying extra pounds are overweight. Some children have larger than average body frames. And children normally carry different amounts of body fat at the various stages of development. So you might not know by how your child looks if weight is a health concern.
The body mass index (BMI), which provides a guideline of weight in relation to height, is the accepted measure of overweight and obesity. Your child's doctor can use growth charts, the BMI and, if necessary, other tests to help you figure out if your child's weight could pose health problems.
When to see a doctor
If you're worried that your child is putting on too much weight, talk to his or her doctor. The doctor will consider your child's history of growth and development, your family's weight-for-height history, and where your child lands on the growth charts. This can help determine if your child's weight is in an unhealthy range.
Lifestyle issues — too little activity and too many calories from food and drinks — are the main contributors to childhood obesity. But genetic and hormonal factors might play a role as well.
Many factors — usually working in combination — increase your child's risk of becoming overweight:
- Diet. Regularly eating high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, baked goods and vending machine snacks, can cause your child to gain weight. Candy and desserts also can cause weight gain, and more and more evidence points to sugary drinks, including fruit juices and sports drinks, as culprits in obesity in some people.
- Lack of exercise. Children who don't exercise much are more likely to gain weight because they don't burn as many calories. Too much time spent in sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, also contributes to the problem. TV shows also often feature ads for unhealthy foods.
- Family factors. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be more likely to put on weight. This is especially true in an environment where high-calorie foods are always available and physical activity isn't encouraged.
- Psychological factors. Personal, parental and family stress can increase a child's risk of obesity. Some children overeat to cope with problems or to deal with emotions, such as stress, or to fight boredom. Their parents might have similar tendencies.
- Socioeconomic factors. People in some communities have limited resources and limited access to supermarkets. As a result, they might buy convenience foods that don't spoil quickly, such as frozen meals, crackers and cookies. Also, people who live in lower income neighborhoods might not have access to a safe place to exercise.
- Certain medications. Some prescription drugs can increase the risk of developing obesity. They include prednisone, lithium, amitriptyline, paroxetine (Paxil), gabapentin (Neurontin, Gralise, Horizant) and propranolol (Inderal, Hemangeol).
Childhood obesity often causes complications in a child's physical, social and emotional well-being.
Physical complications of childhood obesity may include:
- Type 2 diabetes. This chronic condition affects the way your child's body uses sugar (glucose). Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- High cholesterol and high blood pressure. A poor diet can cause your child to develop one or both of these conditions. These factors can contribute to the buildup of plaques in the arteries, which can cause arteries to narrow and harden, possibly leading to a heart attack or stroke later in life.
- Joint pain. Extra weight causes extra stress on hips and knees. Childhood obesity can cause pain and sometimes injuries in the hips, knees and back.
- Breathing problems. Asthma is more common in children who are overweight. These children are also more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder in which a child's breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This disorder, which usually causes no symptoms, causes fatty deposits to build up in the liver. NAFLD can lead to scarring and liver damage.
Social and emotional complications
Children who have obesity may experience teasing or bullying by their peers. This can result in a loss of self-esteem and an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
To help prevent excess weight gain in your child, you can:
- Set a good example. Make healthy eating and regular physical activity a family affair. Everyone will benefit and no one will feel singled out.
- Have healthy snacks available. Options include air-popped popcorn without butter, fruits with low-fat yogurt, baby carrots with hummus, or whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk.
- Offer new foods multiple times. Don't be discouraged if your child doesn't immediately like a new food. It usually takes multiple exposures to a food to gain acceptance.
- Choose nonfood rewards. Promising candy for good behavior is a bad idea.
- Be sure your child gets enough sleep. Some studies indicate that too little sleep may increase the risk of obesity. Sleep deprivation can cause hormonal imbalances that lead to increased appetite.
Also, be sure your child sees the doctor for well-child checkups at least once a year. During this visit, the doctor measures your child's height and weight and calculates his or her BMI. A significant increase in your child's BMI percentile rank over one year may be a possible sign that your child is at risk of becoming overweight.