Childhood Obesity

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

Childhood obesity is a condition in which a child has an unhealthy amount of body fat that can affect their health in negative ways. Rates of childhood obesity are a growing concern worldwide.1

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or living with obesity in 2020. And in the United States alone, 1 in 5 children and adolescents have obesity.1,2

Causes of childhood obesity

Obesity in children is caused by many factors, some of which are outside their control. These can include:2-4

  • Genetics – Family history and genetics play a big role in a child's risk for obesity. For instance, if 1 or both parents are obese, the child is more likely to be obese.
  • Medical conditions – Certain medical conditions, like Cushing’s disease, make someone more likely to develop obesity early in life.
  • Poor diet – Children who consume high-calorie foods, sugary drinks, and processed snacks are at a higher risk of developing obesity.
  • Lack of exercise – Kids who have limited physical activity have a higher risk of obesity. They may spend a lot of time playing video games or watching television.
  • Environmental factors – Limited access to safe spaces to exercise or healthy foods can increase the risk of obesity in children.
  • Specific medicines – A side effect of some prescription drugs, such as steroids and some antidepressants, is weight gain.

Just like adult obesity, childhood obesity is a complex condition. Early detection is critical because childhood obesity can impact a young person's health for the rest of their life.2-4

Dangers of childhood obesity

Childhood obesity is a serious health condition. It affects not only the physical but also the mental well-being of a child.4

In terms of physical well-being, obesity puts a child at risk of:4

In terms of mental and emotional well-being, obesity can increase a child's chances of developing:4

  • Poor self-esteem
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Disordered eating

How to support a child with obesity

If you have a child with obesity, you can support them in several ways.3-6

Take them to the doctor

This should be the first step. If you are concerned about your child’s weight, make an appointment with their pediatrician or primary care doctor. Their doctor can do an obesity health screening to determine if your child is overweight or obese.4,6

Ensure they are eating a healthy diet

Just like adults with obesity, children with obesity need to fuel their bodies with foods that are rich in fiber and low in calories. Make sure they are getting plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.3-6

It is also important to limit your child's intake of sugary drinks and processed snacks. These items are often loaded with added sugar and salt.5

Encourage physical activity

You can encourage your child to engage in physical activities they enjoy, such as playing sports, dancing, or swimming. According to health experts, children and teens need at least 1 hour of physical activity every day.5,6

Get them involved in activities they are motivated to pursue. Encourage plenty of playtime. Plan activities where the whole family can get moving together. If your child has physical limitations, talk to their doctor about what kind of exercise is possible for them.5,6

Limit screen time

In the modern world, screens are everywhere – including on phones, TVs, tablets, and computers. Consider placing limits on your child’s screen time. These limits may vary depending on your child’s age. But setting limits can help reduce the amount of time a child sits still and increase their overall physical activity.5,6

Set a good example

Parents need to model good, healthy behavior for their children. For children with obesity, this can set them up for success in improving their health. It also increases the likelihood that they will make positive lifestyle choices as they grow up.5,6

To the extent that is possible for you, set a good example by eating healthy foods and getting plenty of exercise. Here are some healthy habits you may be able to make as a family:5,6

  • Eat at the dinner table together as a family (not in front of the TV).
  • Cook at home instead of ordering out.
  • Store healthy foods and snacks in the refrigerator and pantry where your child can reach them.
  • Do not keep junk food or highly processed snacks or drinks in the house.
  • Spend more time outdoors and less time in front of screens as a family.

Provide emotional support

Children with obesity often have a hard time emotionally. Be there for them with patience and understanding. Listen to their concerns and worries. Help them set goals and celebrate any wins along the way.6

Above all else, give them plenty of love and support during this time. Remind your child that they are loved, important, and safe.6

Get the medical support you need

If your child is struggling to make weight loss progress, reach out to their doctor for help. Your child may benefit from weight loss treatments such as:5,6

  • Meeting with a registered dietitian, who will help you develop a weight loss plan
  • Joining a weight loss program
  • Taking weight management medicine
  • Doing weight management counseling

Their doctor can help direct you to resources that can make your child’s weight loss journey more successful.

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