Due to the increased amount of high-calorie, processed, and packaged foods, childhood obesity is a growing problem all across the world. It’s a serious issue even in young children under 5.
Childhood obesity can lead to serious health problems during childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. Developing healthy eating and healthy lifestyle habits are important for weight loss, weight management, and overall health.
In this article, I will discuss childhood obesity. You will learn about the main causes and health consequences of childhood obesity. I will offer my top recommendation to help your child to lose weight and improve their health.
Obesity and Childhood Obesity Defined
Being overweight or obese are characterized by excessive fat accumulation that can lead to health issues. The body mass index (BMI) scale is generally used to determine if someone is obese, overweight, at a healthy weight, or underweight. BMI measures your weight-for-height ratio.
For adults, being overweight is defined as having a BMI 25 or over, and obesity is 30 or over. BMI should only be used as a rough guide. Some people may have a higher BMI due to muscle mass, for example, in weightlifters and bodybuilders. Checking body fat percentages, body structure, and other health factors are helpful when determining if someone is at a healthy weight.
When looking at the weight of children, we need to look at their age. BMI-for-age percentile growth charts are most commonly used at doctor’s offices as an indicator of childhood obesity and weight status. Childhood obesity is defined as being equal to or over the 95th percentile. Being overweight as a child or teen is defined as being between the 85th and 95th percentile. Under the 5th percentile is underweight, and between the 5th and the 85th percentile, it’s considered normal (1).
Childhood Obesity Facts
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity has tripled worldwide since 1975 (2). There are 39 million children under 5 and over 340 million children over 5 who are overweight or obese (2).
According to the Government of Canada, 30 percent of children between 5 and 17 are obese (3). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12.7 percent of 2 to 5-year-olds, 20.7 percent of 6 to 11-year-olds, and 22.2 percent of 12 to 19-year-olds are obese (4). Hispanic and black children are at a higher risk of childhood obesity than non-Hispanic white and Asian children.
According to the United Nations, 1 in 3 children between ages 6 and 9 are overweight or obese, and over half of Europeans are overweight or obese (6). Clearly, it’s a global problem. Yet, childhood obesity is preventable.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity is a complex problem. There is no one exact cause that will lead to childhood obesity. There are, however, certain factors that can increase your child’s risks and contribute to childhood obesity (6).
Common causes of childhood obesity include:
- Diet: No surprises here. Diet is one of the major factors behind weight gain, becoming overweight, and childhood obesity. Eating too many high-calorie and inflammatory foods, including foods high in refined sugar and refined oil, high-sugar snacks, baked goods, vending machine snacks, junk food, and fast food. Drinking too many sugary drinks, such as sodas, fruit juice boxes, sports drinks, or energy drinks, may contribute to the problem as well.
- Portion sizes: It’s not just about the quality of food but also the amount of food on your child’s plate. Huge portion sizes, too much snacking, overeating, and emotional eating are problems that affect children and teens too. Eating too much sugary, unhealthy junk food is, of course, easier than from nutrient-dense whole foods. Coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, eating more calories than they burn is a common issue.
- Lack of exercise: Moving their bodies is important for your children’s weight and their overall health. Not exercising enough or at all, especially when combined with eating too many calories, can seriously increase the risk of obesity.
- Family environment: Children coming from a family of overweight or obese people are at a higher risk of becoming obese themselves. If parents don’t encourage physical activity and there are too many high-calorie, unhealthy foods at home, and children observe overeating and other unhealthy eating behavior from their parents, they are at a higher risk of developing poor eating and lifestyle habits themselves and becoming overweight or obese.
- Psychological factors: Psychological factors, such as stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and so on, may lead to overeating, eating issues, and childhood obesity. Children may cope with stress, boredom, or emotional issues with food, especially if they observe similar behavior from their parents.
- Socioeconomic factors: We cannot overlook the role socioeconomic factors play in childhood obesity. Lower-income families may be more likely to buy cheap, packaged, and frozen meals that last longer. They have fewer opportunities to buy organic produce. They may also have less time to cook if they are juggling several low-paying jobs. Families that live in remote areas in so-called food deserts may also have difficulties with a variety of foods. People in lower-income neighborhoods may also have more difficulty finding a safe place to exercise. Lower-income families may be less likely to afford organized sports activities for their children.
- Genetics: Genetic susceptibility can also increase the risk of childhood obesity, especially when combined with a poor diet, lack of exercise, and other risk factors.
- Certain medications: Certain prescription medications, including prednisone, lithium, gabapentin, paroxetine, amitriptyline, and propranolol, may also increase the risk of obesity. Childhood obesity may also be a sign of certain health issues, such as thyroid dysfunction.
Health Consequences of Childhood Obesity
- Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Liver problems, including fatty liver
- Shortness of breath
- Respiratory issues, including asthma
- Poor immunity and frequent infections
- Orthopedic problems
- Joint issues
- Poor concentration
- Sleep issues
- Skin infections
- Chronic pain
- Earlier than normal puberty
- Eating disorders
- Low self-esteem
- Poor body image and body dissatisfaction
- Increased risk of being bullied
- Increased risk of becoming a bully
- Poor social skills
- Other behavioral problems
- Learning problems or difficulties in school
- Being and/or feeling stigmatized at school and/or in society
Unfortunately, childhood obesity also increases the risk of obesity as an adult. It also increases the risk of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, liver disease, dementia, and cancer in adulthood (6, 7).
Strategies for Childhood Obesity
So what can you do about this? How to prevent your child from becoming overweight or obese? How can you help your child to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight if they are overweight or obese? Here is what I recommend:
Check for Underlying Health Issues
Underlying health issues, including thyroid disease, can contribute to weight gain and the risk of obesity. This is particularly important if your child suddenly gains weight without an apparent reason. If they take any medications, check for side effects, and if the medication causes weight gain, see if there are better options you can try.
Focus on a Whole Foods Diet
I recommend that you focus on anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich, nutrient-dense whole foods. Remove refined sugar, refined oil, sugary drinks and snacks, junk food, and overly processed foods. Choose greens, vegetables, sprouts, herbs, spices, fermented food, fruits, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry and eggs, and wild-caught fish. Choose organic whenever available. Choose home-cooked meals over fast food.
- Start with a healthy breakfast: Skipping breakfast can actually increase the risk of weight gain and obesity. According to a 2012 study published in BMC Public Health, eating a balanced breakfast is associated with a lower risk of childhood obesity (8). It may also increase better eating habits and more exercise in children. Better breakfasts may also improve cognition, learning, and school performance (9). A healthy breakfast is rich in antioxidants, fiber, healthy fats, and protein.
- Pack healthy lunches: According to a 2011 review published in Preventing Chronic Disease, the quality of nutrition at school may be linked to the risk of obesity in children (9). Chances are, your children eat lunch at school. While you certainly can’t control what the school offers, you can pack your child healthy food for lunch. Greens, vegetables, fruits, whole grain sprouted bread, sprouted grain tortilla, brown rice, or quinoa are great options for some nutrition wholesome meals.
- Focus on healthy snacks: Snacks are an important part of your child’s daily nutrition. Whether it’s in their lunch box or an afternoon nibble at the park, focus on healthy snacks. Fruits, vegetable sticks with hummus, nut butter, or salsa, nuts, seeds, or trail mix, olives, kale chips or other vegetable chips, crunchy chickpeas, homemade granola or granola bars, smoothies, or coconut yogurt are great options.
- Cook meals at home and eat together: Choose home-cooked meals over fast food, eat out, or order food in the evening and on weekends. Meal planning is your friend here. Make enough so you can use leftovers the next day. Again, greens, vegetables, sprouts, herbs, spices, fermented food, fruits, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry and eggs, and wild-caught fish.
Ease in Slowly
If your child is currently used to sugary snacks, fast foods, and overeating, don’t overhaul their diet one day to the next. Ease into it gradually. Choose better alternatives. Instead of fries from a fast food restaurant, make homemade fries or, better yet, sweet potato or yucca fries. Test out your air fryer to reduce the use of refined oils. Instead of the usual brownie, try a healthier brownie recipe with refined sugar. Pick new recipes together.
Reduce portion sizes gradually. Make it a fun game and involve your child in trying out new, healthier options in age-appropriate ways. Involve the entire family. Make it into a fun family challenge instead of only overhauling your child’s diet. Remember, leading by example is the best way to create lasting change.
Practice Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is something that’s difficult even for most adults. We are constantly rushing, eating on the go, or eating in front of the TV. Healthy eating habits begin during childhood, though. Modeling good behavior and teaching our children how to eat mindfully is essential for their whole life.
Eat family meals together whenever possible. Turn off the TV. Put away your phone, laptop, and other distractions. Mealtimes should be about our mealtime. Teach your kids to focus on their food and their bodies. Teach them to eat slowly and chew their food.
Prioritize Physical Activity and Find Joy in Movement
The CDC recommends 60 minutes of moderate physical activity for children between ages 6 and 17 a day (10). Regular exercise can reduce stress and anxiety, improve learning, promote mental health, aid weight loss and weight maintenance, support bone and muscle health, and build self-esteem.
Reduce sedentary activities, such as video games, social media, TV, and other screen time. Even if your child is a bookworm, a writer, or an artist and engages in beneficial sedentary activities, encourage them to get up regularly and get some exercise. Movement encourages creativity, and they will come back with fresh ideas. Introduce new activities that involve moving their bodies. Ideally, you want to choose activities that are outdoors so they can get some fresh air and vitamin D from the sun too.
When introducing more physical activity into your child’s life, focus on play and how they feel after moving their bodies instead of weight loss or looks. Find activities that they enjoy. Go on walks, hikes, and bike rides as a family together. Other fun options include jumping on a trampoline, climbing trees, jungle gyms, skateboarding, roller skating, ice skating, dancing, and jump roping. Tag, dodgeball, and other games are great for playing in a group. Try out some organized activities, such as soccer, basketball, hockey, gymnastics, or tennis. Finding something they love will make exercise effortless and natural.
Pay Attention to Emotional Health
We can’t ignore emotional health when it comes to childhood obesity. If your child is overweight or obese, they may be dealing with self-esteem issues, stress, anxiety, shame, or bullying as a result. Low self-esteem, stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and other emotional issues can also drive emotional eating and overeating even in children.
Pay attention to potential underlying emotional factors or emotional consequences of their eating habits and weight issues. Show love and support. Show your child that you love them regardless of their weight or eating habits. Get professional support from a therapist if needed.
Be Supportive and Show by Example
Be a supportive parent. Have a clear game plan and support the changes they are making. Lead by example and do it as a family. Make healthier food choices together as a family. Shop for food and make meals together. Make physical activity a fun activity you do together. Engage in stress-relieving activities, such as yoga, meditation, coloring, or journaling together.
Remind them that healthy choices are not just about body weight. It’s about feeling healthier and good in their bodies. The goal is more energy, more joy, and better health, not just vanity. Remember and remind them that weight loss can take time, and taking care of our bodies is a lifelong process. Be patient and love them throughout the process.
If your child is overweight or obese, has health issues or eating problems, or needs some recommendations on how to improve their health, wellness, and mental well-being, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance to improve your health. You may book your consultation here.