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Childhood obesity

Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height.

Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Childhood obesity can also lead to poor self-esteem and depression.

One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the diet and exercise habits of your entire family. Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect the health of your child now and in the future.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Not all children carrying extra pounds are overweight or obese. Some children have larger than average body frames. And children normally carry different amounts of body fat at the various stages of development. So you might not know just by looking at your child if his or her weight is a health concern.

Your child's doctor can help you figure out if your child's weight could pose health problems using growth charts and, if necessary, other tests.

When to see a doctor

If you're worried that your child is putting on too much weight, talk to his or her doctor. Your child's doctor will consider your child's individual history of growth and development, your family's weight-for-height history, and where your child lands on the growth charts. This can help determine if your child's weight is in an unhealthy range.

Lifestyle issues — too little activity and too many calories from food and drinks — remain a significant contributor to childhood obesity. But there are also some genetic and hormonal factors that likely play a role as well. Recent research has found that changes in digestive hormones can affect the signals that let you know you're full.

Though not common, there are genetic diseases and hormonal disorders that can make a child prone to obesity.

Many factors — usually working in combination — increase your child's risk of becoming overweight:

  • Diet. Regularly eating high-calorie foods — such as fast foods, baked goods and vending machine snacks — can easily cause your child to gain weight. Soft drinks containing sugar are a risk factor. Candy and desserts also can cause weight gain. Foods and beverages like these are high in sugar, fat and calories.
  • Lack of exercise. Children who don't exercise much are more likely to gain weight because they don't burn calories through physical activity. Inactive leisure activities, such as watching television or playing video games, contribute to the problem.
  • Family history. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be more likely to put on excess weight, especially in an environment where high-calorie food is always available and physical activity isn't encouraged.
  • Psychological factors. Some children overeat to cope with problems or to deal with emotions, such as stress, or to fight boredom. Their parents may have similar tendencies.
  • Family factors. If many of the groceries you buy are convenience foods — such as cookies, chips and other high-calorie items — this can contribute to your child's weight gain. If you can control your child's access to high-calorie foods, you may be able to help your child lose weight.
  • Socio-economic factors. Foods that won't spoil quickly — such as frozen meals, crackers and cookies — often contain a lot of salt and fats. These foods are often less expensive or an easier option than fresher, healthier foods. In addition, people that live in a lower income neighborhood may not have access to a recreation facility or other safe places to exercise.

Childhood obesity can have complications for the physical, social and emotional well-being of your child.

Physical complications

  • Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes in children is a chronic condition that affects the way your child's body metabolizes sugar (glucose). Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome isn't a disease itself, but a cluster of conditions that can put your child at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes or other health problems. This cluster of conditions includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and excess abdominal fat.
  • High cholesterol and high blood pressure. Your child can develop high blood pressure or high cholesterol if he or she eats a poor diet. 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 and other breathing problems. The extra weight on your child's body can cause problems with the development and health of your child's lungs, leading to asthma or other breathing problems.
  • Sleep disorders. Obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which your child may snore or have abnormal breathing when he or she sleeps, can be a complication of childhood obesity. Pay attention to breathing problems your child may have while sleeping.
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This disorder, which usually causes no symptoms, causes fatty deposits to build up in the liver. NAFLD can lead to scarring and liver damage.
  • Early puberty or menstruation. Being obese can create hormone imbalances for your child. These imbalances can cause puberty to start earlier than expected.

Social and emotional complications

  • Low self-esteem and bullying. 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 have. At one extreme, these problems may lead overweight children to act out and disrupt their classrooms. At the other, they may cause overweight children to socially withdraw.
  • Depression. Low self-esteem can create overwhelming feelings of hopelessness in some overweight children. When children lose hope that their lives will improve, they may become depressed. A depressed child may lose interest in normal activities, sleep more than usual or cry a lot. Some depressed children hide their sadness and appear emotionally flat instead. Either way, depression is as serious in children as in adults. If you think your child is depressed, talk with him or her and share your concerns with his or her doctor.

Whether your child is at risk of becoming overweight or currently at a healthy weight, you can take proactive measures to get or keep things on the right track.

  • Schedule yearly well-child visits. Take your child to the doctor for well-child checkups at least once a year. During this visit, the doctor measures your child's height and weight and calculates his or her BMI. 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.
  • Set a good example. Make sure you eat healthy foods and exercise regularly to maintain your weight. Then, invite your child to join you.
  • Avoid food-related power struggles with your child. You might unintentionally lay the groundwork for such battles by providing or withholding certain foods — sweets, for instance — as rewards or punishments. As a general rule, don't use food as a reward or punishment.
  • Emphasize the positive. Encourage a healthy lifestyle by highlighting the positive — the fun of playing outside or the variety of fresh fruit you can get year-round, for example. Emphasize the benefits of exercise apart from helping to manage weight. For example, it makes the heart, lungs and other muscles stronger. If you foster your child's natural inclination to run around, explore and eat only when hungry — not out of boredom — a healthy weight should take care of itself.
  • Be patient. Many overweight children grow into their extra pounds as they get taller. Realize, too, that an intense focus on your child's eating habits and weight can easily backfire, leading a child to overeat even more or possibly making him or her more prone to developing an eating disorder.
  • Be responsible about your own weight. Obesity often occurs in several family members. If you need to lose weight, doing so will motivate your child to do likewise. Don't expect your child to do something you are unwilling to do for yourself.
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