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What Are the Health Risks of Childhood Obesity?

Dangers can be reduced by teaching healthy habits at early age

A little girl stares at a not-so-nutritious but sweet doughnut.

Dangers can be reduced by teaching healthy habits at early age

It’s no secret that many Americans are severely overweight, and our children are no exception. In fact, there is growing concern about obesity in children and adolescents.


Young people who are obese run the risk of becoming obese adults with chronic health problems.


“Being overweight can present challenges both physically and psychologically,” says Michael W. Lee, MD, an endocrinologist and weight management specialist at Scripps Clinic Del Mar. “Often, these young people are at increased risk for diseases that usually do not occur until later in life.”


Young people who are overweight or obese often struggle in their personal lives. Their higher body weight can affect their self-esteem. They may become the target of teasing or bullying. They may feel self-conscious about their weight and be unable to keep up in physical activities.

Obesity risks

Childhood obesity can result in both short-term and long-term health problems. “Excess weight can cause high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease,” explains Dr. Lee.


“Obesity is also a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes,” he adds. “If young people who are obese don’t lose weight, they will be more likely to develop diabetes in their 20s or 30s. Type 2 diabetes is more common in adults, but it is on the rise in children due to obesity.”


Obesity can lead to other health problems, including:


  • People who are overweight tend to store more fat in the liver, which can lead to liver damage and cirrhosis, or liver failure.


  • Growing bones and developing joints are more vulnerable to damage from having to support excess weight. This can cause orthopedic problems.


  • A higher body weight can cause sleep apnea, which is characterized by snoring, restless sleep and waking up throughout the night. Lack of quality sleep can cause fatigue, irritability and problems with concentration and memory.

Obesity in children

Childhood obesity is defined as being well above the normal or healthy weight for a child’s age and height. It is often referred to as an epidemic.


Childhood obesity rates have risen significantly since the 1970s. Today, one in five children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Rates are highest among Hispanics (25.6 percent) and African-Americans, (24.2 percent).

Why is childhood obesity so prevalent?

There is rarely a single reason for excess weight among younger people, says Dr. Lee. Instead, it tends to be a combination of factors including biology, environment, lifestyle and diet.


“Not everyone will gain or lose weight the same way,” he says. “About 40 percent of body weight is determined by our individual biology or metabolism, which is something we really cannot change.”


Environment plays a much bigger role. As society has become more sedentary, children tend to spend more time in front of a computer, television or game screen. Less time is spent being physically active in organized sports or just everyday activity. It is far less common for children to walk or ride their bikes to school than it was years ago.


Not surprisingly, diet is a major factor. Most children consume far too much fat or sugar often in the form of fast food, candy and soft drinks.

How to reduce childhood obesity at home

There are many ways to prevent weight gain and reverse childhood obesity. “It’s important for children who are overweight to have access to safe and livable environments that are conducive to physical activity, such as bike paths, playgrounds, and safe opportunities to be active,” says Dr. Lee.


Parents need to stay active. “Try to find activities that your children enjoy and participate with them if you can,” Dr. Lee says.


Healthy eating is also key. We also need to make problem foods less accessible. Pack healthier lunches, serve low-fat, high-fiber meals, and replace sugary and starchy snacks with healthier choices.


Dr. Lee recommends using the “5210” rule as a daily guide:


  • At least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables
  • No more than 2 hours of screen time
  • At least 1 hour of exercise
  • 0 sugary beverages

What can parents do to help their children avoid excess weight gain?

It’s never too early to start building healthy habits in your child’s daily life, including making good food choices and increasing physical activity.


If you believe your child may have a weight problem, talk with your pediatrician or primary care physician, who can determine if your child truly is overweight and recommend an action plan.


“Avoid any extreme efforts to lose weight, such as crash diets, fasting, weight loss supplements or anything that seems questionable. These don’t work in the long term and can actually cause anxiety, eating disorders and other health issues,” says Dr. Lee. “Remember that healthy weight loss is a gradual, long-term process that requires lifestyle changes.”