Weighing in on Childhood Obesity

Obesity in children and adolescents is on the rise, but there are ways to prevent it

The percentage of U.S. children and adolescents diagnosed with obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s, with 1 in 5 school-age children and young people (6 to 19 years) now battling obesity, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, new research from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reveals that the U.S. child obesity epidemic is on the rise.

Since the problem isn’t easing, it’s a good time to review a few facts and see if we can’t move the needle toward healthier, appropriate childhood weights.

What is considered obese for a child?

Your healthcare provider is the best person to assess if a child has a problem with his or her weight. “Your pediatrician will be able to let you know if your child’s weight and body mass index (BMI) is appropriate for their age and provide guidance on next steps,” says Rinku Mehra, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist, specializing in metabolic disorders at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

What are the main causes of childhood obesity?

Many factors contribute to childhood obesity, with some identified and some just now being studied. Here are the most commonly cited causes for childhood obesity:

  • Eating and physical activity
  • Genetics
  • Metabolism (how the body converts food and oxygen into energy it can use)
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Patterns of behaviors, family practices

How do you prevent childhood obesity?

Genetics and metabolism are difficult to change, although knowing that risk for obesity exists can be a wake-up call to initiate healthy habits to lower long-term risks.

When it comes to diet and activity levels, these are factors that adults at home, at school and in community settings can positively impact, from helping children access nutritious foods to getting them up off the couch, away from computers or game stations and into physical activities.

Healthcare systems are a rich resource for health-related education, often with fun options. Parents can look for classes and programs aimed at reducing childhood obesity, as well as information to help take action by understanding healthier food choices and how to establish patterns for additional physical activity.

Psychological factors, including personal, parental and family stress, are also shown to increase a child’s risk of obesity. Children — just like adults — sometimes overeat to deal with emotions. Programs that teach the importance of proper nutrition as well as how to deal with stress can go a long way to reverse poor eating habits. In extreme cases, it may be time to consult a behavioral specialist — a service that might be offered through your child’s school or community centers.

How does childhood obesity affect adulthood?

Doctors and researchers know that health issues follow obese children as they grow into adulthood.  Frequently cited long-term health consequences include:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Sleep apnea
  • Social discrimination

Looking at three cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors — high bad cholesterol, high blood pressure and abnormal glucose tolerance — almost 60% of overweight children between the ages of 5 and 17 have at least one of these risk factors and 25% of overweight children have two or more risk factors, according to Let’s Move, a national initiative dedicated to solving the problem of obesity.

In terms of measuring your child’s BMI and identifying obesity, your best first step is a child-wellness visit with your family doctor or pediatrician, who can put your child on a path toward a healthier and more active life.

If you are seeking counseling services for children and/or adolescents with obesity, please contact the Inova Kellar Center, which provides a full continuum of outpatient services and programs for children and adults, including eating disorders. The Inova Kellar Center is a part of Inova Behavioral Health Services, which offers a full continuum of inpatient and outpatient mental health and substance use services for adults, children, and adolescents.

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