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Childhood Obesity: Why, How, and What Should We Do?

Updated on April 3, 2009

Obesity in children and adolescents is more and more common. With a variety of causes the first step in fighting obesity in our children is to understand it, work at preventing it, and helping kids work through it once the problem is there. This takes a lot of work, primarily from parents. However, a healthy lifestyle will make it less likely for your child, whether or not he or she is obese as a child, to prevent obesity (and other issues) in adulthood as well. So, this is certainly something all of us parents should consider.

Diagnosing "Overweight" and "Obesity" in Children and Teens

Most doctors use BMI (or Body Mass Index) to determine if a patient is underweight, average, overweight, or obese. This number is determined by what is a healthy weight for your age, gender, and height. It doesn't always take into account everything that a person is, including a muscle to fat ratio, but it works well for adults. Diagnosing children is a little harder because of rapid weight gain that often comes before a growth spurt. Most still follow recommendations based on the percentile your child falls into. The doctor will determine your child's BMI and compare it to others in his or her age and gender category. Generally a child will be considered overweight if he or she is in the top 85-94 percentile and obese if he is above the 95th percentile.

However, it isn't always so cut and dried. Other factors will be considered and determining the treatment option for your child will often depend on how bad the problem is. It should be noted that preventing and treating obesity is often about making healthy decisions and is good for all kids, overweight or not.

Causes Of Obesity In Children

Simply put, obesity is caused from taking in more calories then you burn for normal growth, metabolism, and physical activity. This is true for all of us! Genetics and hormones can effect how likely one is to become obese because their metabolism burns less then others. However, neither or them is the sole cause to an overweight or obesity problem. Other problems include including too many calories and not getting enough exercise or activity.

When Should I Seek a Doctor?

It should be noted that you should discuss any concerns that you have about your child with your child's physician. This can lead to good communication and you and your child's doctor working together for what's best for your child. Additionally, keeping up on your child's well visits (one a year after age 3) will make it easier to spot a problem and take care of it before it is a really big issue.

Leading Up to Obesity

Bad habits are often the cause of obesity. There are a number of things that more and more families find it easy to fall into. Some kids aren't effected, at least not till they are older, others struggle with weight issues early on. These are some of the problems that often lead to obesity, either in childhood or later on.

  • Diet. Many families and individuals have diet issues all over America. Time has made convenience foods easy, fast foods necessary, and pre-packaged easily microwaved options a must. Or at least it feels that way. These foods are packed with calories, often high in fat, and not good for anyone. Additionally baked goods, vending machine snacks, and sodas are a part of too many people's lives.
  • Portion Sizes. Portion sizes have also gone through the roof. It is easy to overeat and the more you do it, the easier it is to continue doing it. This makes it easier to consume more calories then necessary, after all..."Just super size it!"
  • Bad Eating Habits. Many of us have bad eating habits. We grab and go, often making it easy to grab the wrong foods. Additionally we skip breakfast, eat in front of the TV (computers, video games, and even homework are bad places to eat because you are distracted from the process and don't know when you're full), and we love the sweet and salty snacks that are not good for us.
  • Family Factors. In an age where the family is just too busy, parents work all the time to make it, and life seems hectic at best it is easy to see that there are issues in most families. For those that have a predisposition for obesity, it is easy for these factors to catch up with individuals. It is the parents responsibility to provide fruits, vegetables, and healthy snacks. These are often not available and make it hard for children to make smart choices. Salty, sweet, and fatty foods aren't limited. Screen time isn't limited, and in many situations even encourages. Also activity isn't encouraged and many families do little to nothing together.
  • Psychological Issues. For many food becomes a way to cope with disappointments, stress, and boredom. This can lead to lifelong problems with the issue.
  • Genetics. While all sorts of things are a huge part of whether or not some one will be obese it should be noted that genetics do play some part. Genetics often lead to a predisposition to obesity and a lowered metabolism. It should also be noted that a healthy lifestyle is good for all kids, not just those that show issues with it!

Surgery Treatment

In rare cases where children are very overweight and their health is seriously in danger some doctors recommend surgery as an option for treating the morbidly obese. This is a dangerous way to go and won't work without modifications of the lifestyle.


Many obese children (and adults) suffer a lot of mental anguish. This can be from various social and emotional issues including low-self esteem, social isolation, behavior and learning problems, depression, and even an increased risk of substance abuse. Additionally, there is also the chance that your child may eat as a coping device. No matter what your child is going through or whether or not they "seem" fine it is a good idea to get them counseling and possible group support. This can make a huge difference in becoming a healthier person inside and out.


Weight loss is never an easy thing to achieve. In children the weight loss should be very slow and focus more on lifestyle changes then on the actual weight loss. Children should loose 1 to 4 pounds a month. To do this a family should start by beginning to make changes that will make the whole family healthier. It is a bad idea to try and make only the child suffering with obesity work on lifestyle changes. After all, everyone will benefit from them!

Eating Healthy-

  • Choose fruits and vegetables.
  • Always have healthy snacks available.
  • Limit unhealthy snacks and desserts.
  • Never use food as a reward or punishment.
  • Limit sodas, juices, and other sweet drinks.
  • Have family meals.
  • Don't eat while doing other things (including eating in front of the TV, computer, video games, or even doing homework. This distracts a person from knowing how full they truly are).
  • Limit eating out.

Increase Physical Activity.

  • Limit recreational screen time (including the TV, computer, and game systems).
  • Emphasize activity, not exercise.
  • Find activities your child likes to do.
  • Be active yourself.
  • Do activities such as walking, swimming, and other outside activities together as a family.
  • Vary the activities from one day to another. 

Behavior Modification.

  • Have everyone self monitor their food intake and physical activity to get an idea of how much and of what they eat and what they are doing to burn those calories.
  • Slow down during meals. Have the whole family take their time to make sure that they are not over eating.
  • Limit times and places of eating.

Overall, the goal should be getting the whole family healthy. This includes better eating habits and regular activity!

Childhood obesity comes with a wide range of healthy problems (just as obesity in adults does). It can ruin lives and it can hinder your children. Getting the whole family healthy, eating well, and moving each and every day can make a huge difference for the future of your children.


Submit a Comment
  • Pamela N Red profile image

    Pamela N Red 

    7 years ago from Oklahoma

    Most moms work these days and don't have time to cook healthy foods. Restaurants pile on the amounts we eat and use high calorie ingredients. If you look at portion sizes in the 70's compared to today it is at least double.

    My husband and I often split meals and still bring food home.

    I recently read a great book that has helped a lot of people lose weight. Eat Right For Your Type. It's based on our blood type. I am on it for allergy and health reasons.

  • Lgali profile image


    10 years ago

    Thnaks for sharing all good points

    Eating Healthy-

    Choose fruits and vegetables. Always have healthy snacks available. Limit unhealthy snacks and desserts.Never use food as a reward or punishment. Limit sodas, juices, and other sweet drinks. Have family meals.


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