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Childhood Obesity

Many people believe children cannot become obese, but they can. In fact, more and more children are becoming overweight and obese in the U.S. every year. Over the past 40 years, the number of kids who are overweight has tripled. Many health experts worry that carrying extra weight in childhood will make today’s kids the first generation of Americans to have a shorter life than their parents.

What is childhood obesity?

When children eat more calories than their bodies are able to burn up, the extra calories get converted to fat and stored in the child’s body. This leads to obesity, and can begin as early as age 5 or 6 years old. Overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults, so it is very important that parents help their children learn healthier eating behaviors and encourage them to stay physically active. Without help from their parents, children can enter a cycle of unhealthy behaviors that can lead to a lifelong battle with their weight and their health.

What causes childhood obesity?

Children are considered to be “obese” when their weight is 10% higher than what is recommended for their height and body type. Whether or not a child becomes obese can be influenced by genetics, biology, behavior, and culture. When one parent is obese, a child has a 50% chance of becoming obese. If both parents are obese, the child has an 80% chance of becoming obese. Less than 1% of all obesity is caused by medical disorders.

Some factors that can lead to childhood obesity include:

  • poor eating habits,

  • overeating or binging,

  • lack of exercise,

  • family history,

  • family issues or trouble with peers,

  • low self-esteem, and

  • stressful life changes (parents' divorce, moving, death of a loved one).

What are the health risks for a child who is obese?

Children who are overweight or obese are at increased risk of:

  • heart disease,

  • high blood pressure,

  • diabetes,

  • breathing problems,

  • difficulty sleeping,

  • depression,

  • low self-esteem,

  • anxiety, and

  • obsessive compulsive disorder.

What can parents do to help their children?

Every parent can help improve their child's self-esteem by offering encouragement and praise, and by focusing on the child’s strengths, not their weight. Parents can help motivate a child to make healthier choices by modeling healthy behaviors themselves. Healthy eating and exercise can become family activities everyone participates in.

Change your family’s eating habits.

  • Eat meals at the table as a family, not in front of the TV.

  • Eat more slowly and enjoy conversation together.

  • Serve meals at the same time each day.

  • Limit fatty or salty snacks.

  • Plan meals in advance, and let children be part of the planning and meal preparation process.

  • Control portion size.

  • Don’t use food as a reward.

  • Encourage your child to make healthy food choices at school.

  • Do not start your child on a weight loss program without talking to your health care provider first.

Change your family activities.

  • Turn off the TV and get active.

  • Choose physical activities the whole family can participate in, like walking, swimming, or bicycling.

  • Find time to go outside together every day.

  • Set a good example by showing your kids that physical activity is a priority to you.

Obesity can begin very early in life, so healthy food choices are important even for infants. Young children need the guidance and help of responsible adults to start them on the right track and keep them there.  

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