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Obesity

View trusted insights from KidsHealth.org, the No. 1 most-viewed health site for children, created by the experts at Nemours. We've also provided information from the most-respected nonprofit organizations.

Overweight and Obesity

The number of overweight children in the United States has grown at an alarming rate, with 1 out of 3 kids considered overweight or obese.

Many kids are spending less time exercising and more time in front of the TV, computer, phone, tablet, or video-game console. And today's busy families have fewer free moments to prepare nutritious, home-cooked meals. From fast food to electronics, quick and easy is the reality for many of us.

Preventing kids from becoming overweight means making choices in the way your family eats and exercises, and how you spend time together. Helping kids lead healthy lifestyles begins with parents who lead by example.

The Effects of Obesity

Obesity increases kids' chances of developing medical problems that can affect their present and future health. These include serious conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — all once considered adult diseases. 

Overweight and obese kids are also at risk for:

  • bone and joint problems
  • shortness of breath that makes exercise, sports, or any physical activity more difficult and may make asthma symptoms worse or lead kids to develop the condition
  • restless sleep or breathing problems at night, such as obstructive sleep apnea
  • a tendency to mature earlier (overweight kids may be taller and more sexually mature than their peers, raising expectations that they should act as old as they look, not as old as they are; overweight girls may have irregular menstrual cycles and fertility problems in adulthood)
  • liver and gall bladder disease

Cardiovascular risk factors (including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes) that develop in childhood can lead to heart disease, heart failure, and stroke in adulthood. Preventing or treating overweight and obesity in kids may lower their risk of cardiovascular disease as they get older.

Obese kids also might have emotional issues to deal with (such as low self-esteem), and may be teased, bullied, or rejected by peers. Kids who are unhappy with their weight can be more likely than average-weight kids to:

  • develop unhealthy dieting habits and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia
  • be prone to depression
  • be at risk for substance abuse

Is My Child Overweight?

Body mass index (BMI) uses height and weight measurements to estimate a person's body fat. But calculating BMI on your own can be complicated. An easier way is to use a BMI calculator.

Once your child's BMI is known, it can be plotted on a standard BMI chart. Kids ages 2 to 19 fall into one of four categories:

  1. underweight: BMI below the 5th percentile
  2. normal weight: BMI at the 5th and less than the 85th percentile
  3. overweight: BMI at the 85th and below 95th percentiles
  4. obese: BMI at or above 95th percentile

BMI calculations aren't used to estimate body fat in babies and young toddlers. For kids younger than 2, doctors use weight-for-length charts to determine how a baby's weight compares with his or her length. Any child who falls at or above the 85th percentile may be considered overweight.

BMI is not a perfect measure of body fat and can be misleading in some situations. For example, a muscular person may have a high BMI without being overweight (extra muscle adds to body weight — but not fatness). Also, BMI might be hard to interpret during puberty when kids have periods of rapid growth. It's important to remember that BMI is usually a good indicator — but is not a direct measurement — of body fat.

If you're worried that your child or teen may be overweight, make an appointment with your doctor, who will ask about eating and activity habits and make suggestions on how to make positive changes. The doctor also may order blood tests to look for some of the medical problems associated with obesity.

Depending on your child's BMI (or weight-for-length measurement), age, and health, the doctor may refer you to a registered dietitian for additional advice and, possibly, might recommend a comprehensive weight management program.

Causes of Overweight

A number of things contribute to becoming overweight. Dietary and lifestyle habits, lack of exercise, genetics, or a combination of these can be involved. In some instances, endocrine problems, genetic syndromes, and medicines can be linked to excessive weight gain.

Diet and Lifestyle 

Much of what we eat is quick and easy — from fat-laden fast food to microwave and prepackaged meals. Daily schedules are so jam-packed that there's little time to prepare healthier meals or to squeeze in some exercise. Portion sizes, in the home and out, have grown greatly.

Plus, now more than ever life is sedentary. Kids spend more time playing with electronic devices — from phones and tablets to computers and video game systems  than actively playing outside. Television is a major culprit.

Kids younger than 6 spend an average of 2 hours a day in front of a screen, mostly watching TV, DVDs, or videos. Older kids and teens average 4½ hours a day watching TV, DVDs, or videos. When computer use and video games are included, time spent in front of a screen increases to more than 7 hours a day! In other words, many kids spend almost all of their after-school free time in front of one screen or another.

Kids who watch TV more than 4 hours a day are more likely to be overweight compared with kids who watch 2 hours or less. Not surprisingly, TV in the bedroom is also linked to increased likelihood of being overweight.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children and teens spend no more than 1-2 hours a day using entertainment media and discourages any screen time for children younger than 2 years old. The AAP recommends that no TVs, computers, or video games be in children's bedrooms and that screens be turned off during mealtimes.

Exercise and Physical Activity

Many kids don't get enough physical activity. Although physical education (PE) in schools can help kids get up and moving, more and more schools are cutting PE programs.

Kids should be active every day. Older kids and teens should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise or physical activity, including aerobic and muscle- and bone-strengthening activities. Children ages 2 to 5 years should play actively several times each day.

Genetics

Genetics also can play a role in what kids weigh. Our genes help determine body type and how the body stores and burns fat just as they influence other traits. Genes alone, however, cannot explain the current obesity crisis. Because both genes and habits can be passed down from one generation to the next, multiple members of a family may struggle with weight.

People in the same family tend to have similar eating patterns, maintain the same levels of physical activity, and adopt the same attitudes toward being overweight. A child's risk of obesity greatly increases if one or more parent is overweight or obese.

Preventing Overweight and Obesity

The key to keeping kids of all ages at a healthy weight is taking a whole-family "practice what you preach" approach. Make healthy eating and exercise a family affair. Get your kids involved by letting them help you plan and prepare healthy meals, and take them along when you go grocery shopping so they can learn how to make good food choices.

Try to avoid these common food/eating behavior traps:

  • Don't reward kids for good behavior or try to stop bad behavior with sweets or treats. Come up with other ways to change behavior.
  • Don't maintain a clean-plate policy. Be aware of kids' hunger cues. Even babies who turn away from the bottle or breast send signals that they're full. If kids are satisfied, don't force them to continue eating. Reinforce the idea that they should only eat when they're hungry.
  • Don't talk about "bad foods" or completely eliminate all sweets and favorite snacks from kids' diets. Kids may rebel and overeat these forbidden foods outside the home or sneak them in on their own.

Recommendations by Age

Additional recommendations for kids of all ages:

  • Birth to age 1: In addition to its many health benefits, breastfeeding may help prevent excessive weight gain. Breastfed babies may be more able to control how much they eat and follow their own internal hunger cues.
  • Ages 1 to 5: Start good habits early. Help shape food preferences by offering a variety of healthy foods. Encourage kids' natural tendency to be active and help them build on developing skills.
  • Ages 6 to 12: Encourage kids to be physically active every day, whether through an organized sports team or a pick-up game of soccer during recess. Keep your kids active at home, too, through everyday activities like walking and playing in the yard. Let them be more involved in making good food choices, such as packing lunch.
  • Ages 13 to 18: Teens like fast food, but try to steer them toward healthier choices like grilled chicken sandwiches, salads, and smaller portion sizes. Teach them how to prepare healthy meals and snacks at home. Encourage teens to be active every day.
  • All ages: Cut down on TV, computer, and video game time and discourage eating in front of a screen (TV or otherwise). Serve a variety of healthy foods and eat family meals together as often as possible. Encourage kids to eat breakfast every day, have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and limit sugar-sweetened beverages.

If you eat well, exercise regularly, and build healthy habits into your daily life, you're modeling a healthy lifestyle for your kids. Talk to them about the importance of eating well and being active, but make it a family affair that will become second nature for everyone.

Most of all, let your kids know you love them — no matter what their weight — and that you want to help the whole family be happy and healthy.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 14, 2016