What You Need to Know About Childhood Obesity

Learn about the health hazards and ways parents can help

Find out what you need to know about childhood obesity and how you can help your kids live a healthier life.

It’s no secret that many Americans are overweight, and our children are no exception. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese — and at an increased risk for significant health issues. Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of childhood obesity, and what you can do to help.

How does being overweight affect children’s health?

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

“Excess weight can cause high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease,” says Dr. Lee. “Also, obesity is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, so if these young people don’t lose weight, they will be more likely to develop diabetes in their 20s or 30s.”

In addition, says Dr. Lee, people who are overweight tend to store more fat in the liver, which can lead to liver damage and cirrhosis, or liver failure. Also, growing bones and developing joints are more vulnerable to damage from having to support excess weight, which can cause orthopedic problems.

A higher body weight can also 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.

Higher body weight can affect self-esteem. Overweight children and adolescents may be the target of teasing or bullying. They may feel self-conscious about their weight, and be unable to keep up in physical activities.

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 sugar in the form of sugary sodas, juices and sports drinks. Simple carbohydrates like chips, cookies, muffins, and cereal supply a lot of sugar without much fiber or nutrition. High fructose corn syrup is a common ingredient in many processed foods.

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

There is some good news: Dr. Lee points out that we do appear to be making progress in controlling and ultimately reversing childhood obesity. The CDC reported that, for the first time in decades, overall obesity among children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 has not changed significantly since 2003-2004.

“We can keep this trend going by creating livable environments that are conducive to physical activity, such as bike paths, playgrounds, and safe opportunities to be active,” says Dr. Lee. “Try to find activities that your children enjoy, and participate with them if you can.”

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 should parents do if their child needs to lose weight?

If you believe your child may have a weight problem, start 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.”