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Obesity in Children: How Parents Can Help

Boy hitting a beach ball in an indoor gym.

Childhood obesity in the U.S. is growing at an alarming rate. According to the CDC, since 1980, the obesity rate among U.S. children and teens has tripled. Most children become obese because of a combination of poor diet, lack of physical activity, and other lifestyle issues. In rare cases, however, a child's excess weight may be because of a specific illness.

What is obesity?

Obesity is defined as a BMI (body mass index) at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same sex and age. Overweight is defined as a BMI at or above the 85th percentile but less than the 95th percentile.  You can calculate your child's BMI here

Obesity linked to behavior

Children who consume too many calories and don't get enough exercise are at risk for obesity. Some children, especially those in lower-income neighborhoods, may have only limited access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. The widespread elimination of recess and physical education in schools, along with a rise in idle behaviors like watching TV and playing video games, also keep many children from getting enough physical activity. To help combat these factors, parents can make these positive changes in kids' lives:

  • Get your child moving. Children need at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day. This can include fun aerobic activities like playing tag and jumping rope. Set a positive example for your children by being active yourself. Make exercise a part of your daily routine. Try taking a family walk, dancing, biking, or playing an outdoor game together as often as you can.

  • Emphasize fruits and vegetables. Following a healthier diet can help prevent or reverse obesity. Keep soda and chips out of the house, or have them only on very special occasions. Try serving your children kid-friendly snacks. These include fruit smoothies, raw veggies with yogurt dip, and celery with peanut butter. If fresh produce isn't available or too expensive, look for frozen choices.

  • Watch portion sizes. Over the last few decades, portions of foods in both grocery stores and restaurants have ballooned. Make sure your children's food intake stays within the USDA recommendations for appropriate meal sizes for each food group. One serving of grains, for example, is just a half-cup of spaghetti or one regular slice of bread. Half a small chicken breast and a small, lean hamburger patty each count as one protein serving.

Obesity linked to a medical cause

Some children become overweight or obese because of certain illnesses or genetic tendencies. Talk to your child's healthcare provider if you have concerns for a medical cause of increased weight gain. Some examples include the following: 

  • Prader-Willi syndrome. This genetic disease can cause insatiable feelings of hunger and a metabolism that burns fewer calories than normal. Other symptoms of the condition include low levels of sex hormones and poor muscle tone. Although there's no cure for this condition, early diagnosis can help parents take steps to prevent their children from becoming obese.

  • Cushing syndrome. Although this disease most often affects adults between ages 20 and 50, it can happen in children, too. In children with Cushing syndrome, growth rate slows, but the rate of weight gain increases. Cushing syndrome is characterized by a moon face, acne, easily bruised skin, stretch marks, and fatigue or depression. It's caused by prolonged exposure to cortisol, a stress-related hormone in the body. The excess cortisol can be released because of tumors on the adrenal glands or pituitary gland or from overuse of steroid medicines. Depending on the cause, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and medicines can all be used to treat Cushing syndrome. If you suspect your child may have the condition, talk with your child's healthcare provider.

  • Hypothyroidism. This is a condition caused by low activity in the thyroid gland. This controls how quickly the body burns calories. Children with hypothyroidism may be slow to grow and have delayed development. Although it is less common than delayed growth and short stature in children, many people with hypothyroidism, including children, experience weight gain. They may also have pale skin and feel tired. Medicines to restore normal thyroid hormone levels can help treat hypothyroidism. Your child's healthcare provider can conduct tests to screen for this condition. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Adler, Liora C., MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Image Reviewed by Staywell medical art team.
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2018
© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.