Childhood obesity has been on the rise in the United States for more than a decade, and according to the American Heart Association (AHA), about one in three children and teens is obese or overweight.
As the AHA notes, this rate is nearly three times as high as it was in 1963. In fact, childhood obesity has become so alarmingly widespread and such a threat to children’s health that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has an entire website dedicated to its prevention. and treatment.
But hope is not lost. Parents everywhere will be happy to know that in addition to the AHA and the AAP, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), several organizations have joined the fight to end childhood obesity.
Being involved in the fight against childhood obesity requires an understanding of its definitions, causes, treatments and options for prevention.
How obesity is defined in children
For children ages 2 to 19, obesity is defined using the body mass index (BMI). A BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex is classified as obese. A BMI at or above the 85th percentile but below the 95th percentile is considered to be overweight.
For children under the age of two, there is currently no nationally recommended and agreed definition of obesity.
There are numerous and serious health risks associated with childhood obesity, both in the short and long term. Obese children are more likely to have high blood pressure (hypertension) and high blood cholesterol, both of which are risk factors for future cardiovascular disease (disease of the heart and blood vessels, including the blood vessels that supply the brain).
For example, in one study, as many as 70 percent of obese children were found to have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Children who are obese are also at a much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In fact, the emergence of type 2 diabetes in children has caused great concern among the medical community, as “diabetes of childhood” was seen as just the rarer type 1 diabetes.
Now, with the rise of childhood obesity, there has been a veritable explosion in cases of type 2 diabetes in children. Since diabetes is also a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, it is another disease with serious long-term consequences.
In addition, obese children are more likely to have respiratory problems, such as asthma and obstructive sleep apnea. These children are also more likely to have joint problems and fatty liver disease that have been linked to cirrhosis and liver cancer over time.
Finally, as many experts have pointed out, childhood obesity or overweight often leads to obesity in adulthood.
It is impossible to pinpoint a single cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. Rather, there is a variety and combination of factors.
A number of studies have examined the reasons for increased rates of childhood obesity — and more studies are underway. Many studies have certainly shown that a more sedentary lifestyle does occur. And studies have shown that children who watch television for more than an hour a day tend to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and higher blood pressure. Researchers have suggested that more time in front of the television is associated with poor food choices leading to overweight and obesity and, in turn, increased cardiovascular risk.
The decline in physical education programs and the time allocated for physical activity during the average school day has also been implicated in the increase in childhood and adolescent obesity. In addition to obesity itself, there are many reasons why this decrease in physical activity is a serious concern; lower levels of physical fitness tend to increase the risk of heart disease.
Poor dietary choices of high-calorie foods have also been linked to childhood obesity. Many studies have found a link between certain dietary habits, such as consuming sugary drinks, and obesity. The intake of sweetened drinks has received a lot of attention and research has overwhelmingly pointed to a link between their intake and obesity, both in children and adults. In addition, many clinicians note that when obese and overweight children follow their recommendations to reduce or avoid the intake of sugary drinks, they lose weight reliably.
Keep in mind that the sugary drinks category includes soft drinks as well as fruit and juice drinks, which often have multiple sugars added. In fact, the intake of sugary drinks is considered so dangerous to children’s health and such a major cause of obesity that several cities have placed additional taxes or warning labels on it.
There are also genetic factors that play a role in the development of childhood obesity, many of which are only now being researched or discovered. For example, scientists have found that the FTO gene can cause a tendency to binge eating and the development of obesity in adolescents.
Managing childhood obesity
When a child is diagnosed with obesity, it is difficult for any parent. If you are concerned that your child is overweight or obese, discuss your concern with your child’s pediatrician and get help. They can provide strategies that can lead to weight loss that are appropriate for your child and your situation.
If your child has been diagnosed with obesity, you can work with him/her in a positive way to make daily physical activity more enjoyable – especially if he/she doesn’t have access to physical education at school – and to encourage healthy eating use. (This includes taking steps to encourage healthier habits during holidays traditionally associated with sugar consumption, such as Halloween and Easter, and making it a common priority to eat at home more often.)
Don’t underestimate the power of eating a home-cooked meal around the family table. Not only does this encourage quality time with your kids, but studies have shown time and time again that there are many health benefits to be gained from eating at home.
For example, in a study presented at the 2015 AHA meeting in Orlando, researchers led by Geng Zong, PhD, research fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, found that people who ate 11 to 14 lunches on average and dinners prepared at home each week had a 13 percent lower risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes compared with those who ate zero to six home-cooked lunches and dinners.
Other studies have linked eating out, especially fast food, with overweight and obesity in children and young adults. According to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), more than a third of children and adolescents consume fast food on any given day.
As the CDC notes, “Fast food consumption has been linked to weight gain in adults.” Poor dietary choices that include high-calorie foods have also been linked to childhood obesity. In addition, fast food is known to be high in sodium and saturated fat, which can eventually lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Home cooked food, on the other hand, often has a higher nutritional quality and less sodium and saturated fat. In an analysis of nearly 10,000 participants in NHANES from 2007 to 2010, researchers concluded that “often home cooking is associated with consuming a healthier diet, whether or not someone is trying to lose weight.”
There are now a number of treatments available for obesity. In addition to lifestyle changes, these obesity medications include bariatric (weight loss) surgery. While lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise are first-line therapy for everyone, this is especially true for children. Children may experience greater side effects from medications or more invasive treatments. However, it is important to discuss all possibilities and best options for your child with the pediatrician.
A word from Verywell
Always remember that obesity is treatable and given the number of children across the country and around the world who have been diagnosed with being overweight or obese, you are certainly not alone in your fight against it.
While it will take dedication and patience to create and stick to a plan to help your child cope with and ultimately overcome obesity, in the long run it will pay off and chart a course for a better, healthier future for your child.