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.
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.
Lifestyle issues — too little activity and too many calories from food and drinks — are the main contributors to childhood obesity. But genetic and hormonal factors may play a role as well. For example, 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 also 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, candy and desserts also can cause weight gain.
- Lack of exercise. Children who don’t exercise much are more likely to gain weight because they don’t burn as many calories. Too much time spent in sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, also contribute to the problem.
- Family factors. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be more likely to put on weight. This is especially true in an environment where high-calorie foods are 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.
- Socioeconomic factors. People in some communities have limited resources and little access to supermarkets. As a result, they may opt for convenience foods that don’t spoil quickly, such as frozen meals, crackers and cookies. In addition, people who live in lower income neighborhoods may not have access to safe places to exercise.
Parents play a crucial role in helping children who are obese feel loved and in control of their weight. Take advantage of every opportunity to build your child’s self-esteem. Don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of health and fitness but do be sensitive that a child may view your concern as an insult. Talk to your kids directly, openly, and without being critical or judgmental.