Children are always growing and changing. Whether they’re getting taller, building muscle, or gaining weight, it can be hard to keep up with their constant development. It’s an exciting time, but it’s also an important time to make sure that your child is developing properly — especially when it comes to their weight.
If your child’s weight is greater than what’s considered healthy for their height, age, or gender, that means that they are overweight or obese. While these are both health concerns, they’re different conditions.
Children who are overweight weigh too much, whether that’s from muscle, bone, fat, or even water. Children who are obese have too much body fat, which can be very dangerous for their health.
- One in 5 children ages 6 to 19 is obese.
- There are 13.7 million children and adolescents who are obese.
- Childhood obesity is most common in children 12 to 19 years old and least common in children 2 to 5 years old.
- The percentage of children and adolescents with obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.
- In Kansas, about 13% of children and adolescents are obese.
5 Fast Facts about Childhood Obesity in the US
The Dangers of Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity can severely affect the way your child’s body grows during crucial developmental years. It can also lead to a number of health problems, including:
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Sleep apnea (disruption of normal breathing during sleep)
- Pain in their knees, thighs, hips, and back
- Liver disease
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Skin infections, such as fungi trapped in skin folds
What Causes Childhood Obesity?
Parents often blame themselves for their child’s obesity problems, but that belief isn’t necessarily true. And it may not be helpful when it comes to making some changes. No one’s to blame for childhood obesity; there can be a number of contributing factors, such as:
- Metabolism (how your child’s body converts food and oxygen into energy)
- Poor diet
- Lack of physical activity
- Sleeping problems
- Social problems, such as bullying
Some of these are impossible to change, such as genetics. However, the choices your child makes every single day play a role in their weight, including what they do and what they eat.
These years are crucial to learning about and practicing a healthy lifestyle. For every 20 children who are obese going into adulthood, 19 will be overweight for the rest of their lives. Making lifestyle changes now can help ensure they prioritize their health in the years to come.
Managing Childhood Obesity Through Diet
A healthy diet is key to losing weight, and this includes both what your child eats and how much they eat.
Since everyone can benefit from watching their diet and portion size — not just children — consider prioritizing a healthy diet as a family. This does more than improve your whole family’s well-being. It also makes your child feel supported and included.
Eating Nutritious Foods
Every child’s dietary needs are a little different. Based on your youngest child’s overall health or other medical conditions they may have, they might need a different diet than their older sibling has.
Fortunately, you don’t need to figure this out on your own. Your child’s pediatrician can take a look at your child’s individual needs and help you create the right diet for them.
That being said, there are some general rules of thumb when it comes to healthy eating.
Some foods to encourage your child to eat may include:
- Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (such as brown rice)
- Lean meats, poultry, seafood, beans, and eggs
- Fat-free or low-fat milk, milk products, or milk substitutes
You may want to avoid giving your child too much:
- Meats high in fat, such as pork
- Whole milk or cream
- Sweets, such as candy and ice cream
- Soda and sugary drinks
- Fast food
Try to avoid using sweets and other treats as a reward. This can make your child prefer these foods over others, which can lead to unhealthy eating in the future.
Eating the Right Amount
How much your child eats is just as important as what they eat.
You and your child’s physician can determine this based on portion size, which is how much your child eats at a meal or snack. The appropriate portion size depends mostly on their age, but also on other factors, such as their development or level of activity.
For example, the recommended portion size for a child 1 to 3 years old is one half of a piece of fresh fruit — but for a child 7 to 10 years old, the recommended portion size is a full piece. If they’re very active (e.g., they play on a soccer team five days a week), they may need extra calories in their diet to provide them with that energy.
Rather than giving your child a full plate, it can be helpful to start with smaller amounts of food and then ask if they’re still hungry before giving them more.
Keep in mind — the healthiest way to lose weight is gradual. This means they should lose no more than one or two pounds a week. Your child is constantly growing, and cutting too many calories can stunt their growth. It’s important to talk to your child’s physician to determine the right amount of calories that will help your child lose weight and stay healthy. The goal is to develop healthy eating habits — not just weight loss.
Managing Childhood Obesity Through Exercise
Physical activity is essential for your growing child. With school, homework, and other activities, it can be challenging to get your child to prioritize exercise. However, it’s essential to keep them healthy now and into their adult years.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children get about 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but that doesn’t need to be all at once. Try having them start small with five- or 10-minute activities to get them moving, and encourage them to build up from there.
Your child’s physician can suggest some healthy ways to incorporate physical activity into their day, including:
- Choosing a regular activity, such as going to the playground, joining a sports team, or taking dance classes
- Finding simple, fun activities to do at home, such as playing catch, riding a bike (with a helmet), playing tag, or jumping rope
- Planning active family outings, such as a hike or a family bike ride
- Limiting screen time, such as the computer, TV, or phone, to two hours a day
Exercise shouldn’t be a bore — and it doesn’t have to be. By helping your child find enjoyable ways to stay active now, you can help them lose weight and maintain a healthy, active lifestyle for the rest of their life.
When Medication or Surgery Is Needed
Your child can make all the right lifestyle choices and still not see results that put them in a healthier weight range. If your child is struggling to lose weight — or they begin to experience other health problems — their physician may prescribe weight-loss medication, or recommend surgery.
Weight Loss Medications
Medications don’t replace exercise or healthy eating habits — they’re a supplement to your child’s existing lifestyle program. Before prescribing medication, your child’s pediatrician will consider:
- How likely the medication is to work
- Possible side effects of the medication
- Your child’s other medications
- Your child’s medical history
Currently, the only medication approved by the US Food And Drug Administration (FDA) for children age 12 and older is Orlistat, which works by preventing your child’s body from absorbing some of the fat in the food they eat. The unabsorbed fat gets removed in your child’s stool.
If your child is prescribed weight loss medication, be sure to follow their physician’s instructions and continue practicing healthy lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise.
Weight Loss Surgery
Most weight-loss surgeries — called bariatric surgery — are performed on adults, but some teenagers have also benefited from this procedure. Weight loss surgery may be an option if your child is extremely overweight; has tried other treatment options that have been ineffective; or has developed serious obesity-related health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or sleep apnea.
There are different types of bariatric surgery. Some limit the amount of food your child absorbs, and others affect how they digest and absorb nutrients. Both require your child to follow a strict diet and exercise regularly after the surgery to keep the weight off.
Your child’s physician can go through an initial assessment to see if your child is a candidate and refer them to a weight-loss surgeon, if needed. Other health care providers, such as psychologists, social workers, and nutritionists, may also be on the team to help decide if surgery is right for your child.
Bariatric surgery is major surgery, and it’s not a cosmetic surgery. It’s a potentially life-saving, medical procedure. You should talk to your child’s pediatrician about the risks and benefits for your child. Other risks include infections, hernias (when part of an organ bulges through a weak spot on the stomach), and blood clots.
How Pediatricians and Parents Can Help
Losing weight isn’t easy, but it’s important in order to prevent serious complications that can occur from obesity. By helping your child adjust to a healthy lifestyle now, you’re also setting them up for a much healthier adulthood.
Your child’s pediatrician plays a crucial role in helping your child achieve a healthy weight in a safe way. They can provide nutrition advice, exercise recommendations, and if needed, prescribe medication or refer your child for surgery. They can also help your child work through individual challenges, such as self-esteem issues and feelings of frustration.
As a parent or caregiver, you also have the ability to support your child on a daily basis — from setting goals to tracking their progress to rewarding their success with praise. Listen to your child’s questions and concerns about their weight loss, and make sure they understand why it needs to be a priority.
Most importantly, keep reminding your child how much you care about them and how important they are to you. Their self-esteem may reflect the way they believe you view them. Your support and encouragement will go a long way toward helping them achieve a healthy weight — and a healthy life.
Why Choose Stormont Vail
Located in Topeka, Kansas, Stormont Vail Health is a community-driven organization. It offers close to home care and with limited travel requirements, it will be easier for you to get the care your child needs from experienced pediatric providers you can trust at Cotton O’Neil Pediatrics.
In 2018, Stormont Vail achieved Magnet designation for a third time. Magnet designation is one of the highest awards in nursing excellence and high-quality patient care. Only 9% of US hospitals have earned this recognition. The Joint Commission — with more than 50 years of accrediting hospitals in high quality standards — has also accredited Stormont Vail Hospital.
With a care team that includes pediatricians, behavioral health specialists, nurses, and other specialists, Cotton O’Neil Pediatrics has an experienced and skilled medical team to help you manage your child’s health.