Children who are obese are above the normal weight for their age and height. Today, about one in three American kids and teens are overweight or obese; nearly triple the rate in 1963. Among children today, obesity is causing a broad range of health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and elevated blood cholesterol levels. The excess weight at young ages has been linked to higher and earlier death rates in adulthood. There are also psychological effects: Obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. Many obese children become obese adults, especially if one or both parents are obese.
If you’re worried that your child is putting on too much weight, talk to his or her doctor and start a program that will treat and prevent obesity, and will help your child live a long, healthy life.
Complications from Childhood Obesity:
• 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 in children.
• High cholesterol and high blood pressure. Lack of exercise and 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. These plaques can cause arteries to narrow and harden, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke later in life.
• Asthma. Children who are overweight or obese might be more likely to have asthma.
• Sleep disorders. Obstructive sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder in which a child’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.
• Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This disorder causes fatty deposits to build up in the liver. NAFLD can lead to scarring and liver damage.
Social and Emotional Problems:
• Low self-esteem and being bullied. Children often tease or bully their overweight peers, who suffer a loss of self-esteem and an increased risk of depression as a result.
• Behavior and learning problems. Overweight children tend to have more anxiety and poorer social skills than normal weight children do. These problems might lead children who are overweight to act out and disrupt their classrooms at one extreme, or to withdraw socially at the other.
• Depression. In some children who are overweight, low self-esteem can create overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, which can lead to depression.
Causes of Childhood Obesity:
Lifestyle issues – too little activity and too many calories from food and drinks – are the main culprits of childhood obesity in the US.
• Diet. Regularly eating high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, candy, desserts and baked goods, and vending machine snacks, can easily cause your child to gain weight. Sugary drinks, including fruit juices, are a huge contributor to childhood obesity.
• Lack of exercise. Children who spend too much time in sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, don’t exercise much and are more likely to gain weight because they don’t burn as many calories.
• Family factors. Genetics can also contribute to childhood obesity. 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, or to fight boredom. Their parents may have similar tendencies.
• Socioeconomic factors. People in some communities have limited resources and limited access to supermarkets. As a result, they may opt for fast foods and convenience foods that don’t spoil quickly, such as frozen meals, crackers and cookies. In addition, children who live in lower income neighborhoods might not have access to a safe place for physical activity.
Whether your child is at risk of becoming overweight or is currently at a healthy weight, you can take measures to get or keep things on the right track. Good habits established in childhood help adolescents maintain healthy weights despite the hormonal changes, rapid growth and social influences that often lead to overeating. And active children are more likely to become fit adults.
• Make it a family issue. One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the eating and exercise habits of your entire family. Talking about the health and habits of the entire family together as a team will create a supportive environment and keep individual children from feeling targeted.
• Encourage healthy eating habits.
Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain products.
Include low-fat or non-fat milk or dairy products.
Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils and beans for protein.
Serve reasonably sized portions for your child’s age.
Encourage your family to drink lots of water.
Reduce sugar, sodium and saturated fat and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Limit eating out, especially at fast-food restaurants.
Eat meals as a family as often as possible.
• Help your kids understand the benefits of being physically active. A critical part of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, especially for children, is physical activity. It burns calories, strengthens bones and muscles, and helps children sleep well at night and stay alert during the day.
• Find activities your child likes, and emphasize activity, not exercise. Children and teens should be moderately to vigorously active for at least an hour a day. Your child’s activity doesn’t have to be a structured exercise program – if your child likes to climb, head for the nearest neighborhood jungle gym or climbing wall. If your child likes to read, then walk or bike to the neighborhood library for a book. The object is to get him or her moving. Free-play activities, such as bike riding, hide-and-seek, tag, dancing, swimming, or jump-rope are fun and are great for burning calories and improving fitness.
• Reduce sedentary time. Although quiet time for reading and homework is fine, limit “screen time” (TV, video games, Internet, smartphones) to no more than two hours a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 18 months should avoid all screen time, except for video-chatting with family and friends. For older preschoolers, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming.
• Schedule yearly doctor visits. Be sure your child sees the doctor for well-child checkups at least once a year. During this visit, your child’s doctor will measure your child’s history of growth and development, your family’s weight-for-height history, where your child lands on the growth charts, and their Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI provides a guideline of weight in relation to height, and is the accepted measure of overweight and obesity. An increase in your child’s BMI or in his or her percentile rank over one year is a possible sign that your child is at risk of becoming overweight.
Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect your child’s health now and in the future.