Obesity in Children: How Parents Can Help
Childhood obesity in the U.S. is growing at an alarming rate. According to the CDC,
since 1980, the obesity rate among U.S. children and adolescents has tripled. In fact,
the most recent CDC statistics indicate that approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children
and adolescents between ages 2 and 19 are obese. Most children become obese because
of a combination of poor diet, lack of physical activity, and other lifestyle issues.
In rare cases, however, a child's excess weight may be because of a specific illness.
What is obesity?
Obesity is defined as a BMI (body mass index) of 30 or more, while overweight is defined
as a BMI of 25 to 29.9. You can calculate your child's BMI here.
Obesity linked to behavior
Children who consume too many calories and don't get enough exercise are at risk for
obesity. Some children, especially those in lower-income neighborhoods, may have only
limited access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. The widespread elimination
of recess and physical education in schools, along with a rise in idle behaviors like
TV watching and video-game playing, also keep many children from getting enough physical
activity. To help combat these factors, parents can make these positive changes in
Get your child moving. Children need at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day. This can
include fun aerobic activities like playing tag and jumping rope. Set a positive example
for your children by being active yourself. Make exercise a part of your daily routine.
Try taking a family walk, dancing, biking, or playing an outdoor game together as
often as you can.
Emphasize fruits and vegetables. Following a healthier diet can help prevent or reverse obesity. Keep soda and chips
out of the house, or have them only on very special occasions. Try serving your children
kid-friendly snacks. These include fruit smoothies, raw veggies with yogurt dip, and
celery with peanut butter. If fresh produce isn't available or too expensive, look
for frozen choices.
Watch portion sizes. Over the last few decades, portions of foods in both grocery stores and restaurants
have ballooned. Make sure your children's food intake stays within the USDA recommendations
for appropriate meal sizes for each food group. One serving of grains, for example,
is just a half-cup of spaghetti or one regular slice of bread. Half a small chicken
breast and a small, lean hamburger patty each count as one protein serving.
Obesity linked to a medical cause
Some children become overweight or obese because of certain illnesses or genetic tendencies.
Talk to your child's healthcare provider if you have concerns for a medical cause
of increased weight gain. Some examples include the following:
Prader-Willi syndrome. This genetic disease can cause insatiable feelings of hunger and a metabolism that
burns fewer calories than normal. Other symptoms of the condition include low levels
of sex hormones and poor muscle tone. Although there's no cure for this condition,
early diagnosis can help parents take steps to prevent their children from becoming
Cushing syndrome. Although this disease most often affects adults between ages 20 and 50, it can happen
in children, too. In children with Cushing syndrome, growth rate slows, but the rate
of weight gain increases. Cushing syndrome is characterized by a moon face, acne,
easily bruised skin, stretch marks, and fatigue or depression. It's caused by prolonged
exposure to cortisol, a stress-related hormone in the body. The excess cortisol can
be released because of tumors on the adrenal glands or pituitary gland or from overuse
of steroid medicines. Depending on the cause, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and
medicines can all be used to treat Cushing syndrome. If you suspect your child may
have the condition, talk with your child's healthcare provider.
Hypothyroidism. This is a condition caused by low activity in the thyroid gland. This controls how
quickly the body burns calories. Children with hypothyroidism may be slow to grow
and have delayed development. Although it is less common than delayed growth and short
stature in children, many people with hypothyroidism, including children, experience
weight gain. They may also have pale skin and feel tired. Medicines to restore normal
thyroid hormone levels can help treat hypothyroidism. Your child's healthcare provider
can conduct tests to screen for this condition.