September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. This blog will discuss prevalence, risk factors, prevention techniques, treatment, and advice for parents for children affected.
Childhood obesity is currently a very serious problem in the United States, putting children and adolescents at risk for poor health1. Due to the high prevalence of childhood obesity, it is important for both parents and teens to understand the background of this disease.
For children and adolescents aged 2-19 years in 2017-2018:
- The prevalence of obesity was 19.3% and affected about 14.4 million children and adolescents1.
This high prevalence is worrisome to healthcare in America as emerging research shows that the genesis of Type 2 Diabetes and Coronary Heart Disease begins in childhood, with childhood obesity serving as an important factor2.
Furthermore, children with overweight or obesity are at a higher risk for asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Children with obesity are also more likely to be affected by social and mental issues like bullying, social isolation, depression, and lower self-esteem3.
Having risk factors for childhood obesity, does not guarantee that your child will develop obesity. Many of these risk factors can be controlled or reduced through behaviors.
These risk factors usually work in combination to increase your child's risk of becoming overweight1:
- Diet/Nutrition: Frequently eating calorie-dense foods, such as fast foods, baked goods, and vending machine snacks, can often contribute to weight gain. Studies have explored the link between sugary drink consumption and weight gain, and it has been continually found to be a contributing factor. Furthermore, sugary drinks are less filling than food and can be consumed quicker, which results in a higher caloric intake2.
- Portion sizes: Portion sizes have increased significantly in the past decade. Consuming large portions, in addition to frequent snacking on highly caloric foods, contribute to an excessive caloric intake leading to weight gain2.
- Lack of Physical Activity: Children who don't exercise often are more likely to gain weight due to more calories consumed than worked off. Too much time spent in sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, also contributes to the problem4.
- Genetics: Genetic factors count for less than 5% of cases of childhood obesity4. However, genetic susceptibility often needs to be coupled with contributing environmental and behavioral factors in order to affect weight2.
- Psychological factors: Personal, parental, and family stress can increase a child's risk of obesity. Furthermore, families with overweight children experience more parenting stress5.
- Medications: Some prescription drugs can increase the risk of developing obesity. They include prednisone, lithium, amitriptyline, paroxetine (Paxil), gabapentin (Neurontin, Gralise, Horizant) and propranolol (Inderal, Hemangeol). Always talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns regarding medication use and weight gain.
Prevention & Treatment
Many of the tips for obesity prevention coincide with tips for treatment if your child is overweight or obese.
- Family mealtime
- While eating together as a family may not always be feasible, it is important to include family mealtimes as often as possible. Children will often mimic eating patterns and habits of family members. This also allows parents more control of what is going into their children’s meals.
- Eat the rainbow
- Try to include a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables in meals throughout the week. Fruits and vegetables are low in calories and are nutrient-dense choices.
- To make it more enjoyable for the family, try shopping for fresh in season produce. For example, take the family apple picking in the fall. Use the apples throughout the week as snacks and even in desserts!
- Healthy Breakfast
- A balanced breakfast can set up your child for success. A breakfast containing both protein and carbohydrates will allow your child to have long lasting energy and fullness to deter snacking. Breakfast is also a great opportunity to add more fruits or veggies to your child’s meals.
- Nutritious Beverages
- Fruit juices, soda, coffee drinks, milkshakes, and some smoothies can be calorie-dense beverages choices.
- Swap these drinks out for water, low fat milk, seltzer water, homemade smoothies with no added sugar. Small swaps like beverages choices can make a sustainable difference long term!
- MyPlate eating
- Use the MyPlate technique to build meals for your children. The MyPlate method uses the plate to show that the plate should contain 50% vegetables or fruit, 25% protein, and 25% grains (leaning towards at least half being whole grains).
- This aids your child in getting both the necessary macronutrients and micronutrients for a strong healthy body!
- Make Physical Activity Fun
- Create goals, weekly challenges, and games to make physical activity more enjoyable. Create a list of movements that your child enjoys. For example, jump rope, hopscotch, basketball, hula hoop, or swimming. When physical activity is fun, goals are more easily met!
- Move as a Family
- Schedule time throughout the week to enjoy movement together as a family. Go to the park, take a hike, go to the community pool, or take a nightly after dinner walk. Kids need at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Play with your kids every day. It's fun for them and fun for you too.
- Purchase toys that encourage play
- Hula hoop, jump rope, bike, pogo stick, or a soccer ball are all examples of toys that children love. These toys are interactive and encourage fun movement.
- Quality sleep is crucial to prevent type 2 diabetes, obesity, injuries, poor mental health, and problems with attention and behavior. Children 6-12 years old need 9-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night and youth 13-18 need 8-10 hours3. Too little sleep is associated with obesity partly because inadequate sleep can make us eat more and be less physically active.
- To help your child with sleep, be sure to get physical activity throughout the day, reduce screen time, and enforce consistent bedtimes.
Reduce Screen Time
- Adults and children spend over 7 hours a day being sedentary, and this number does not include hours spent sleeping. Many of these hours include screen time with computers, phones, tablets, television, and video games. Too much screen time has health consequences: it’s associated with poor sleep, weight gain, lower grades in school, and poor mental health in youth3.
- Encourage no technology at mealtimes, charge devices at night outside of bedrooms, and set technology limits after school. For example, 1 hour of television a night.
Support As Parents
While it can be a stressful time for parents and children after diagnosis, it is important to remain positive as there are many options for treatment and risk reduction.
To protect your child’s mental health and body positivity, the focus should be on overall health, not a certain weight goal6. Emphasis should not be placed on the number on the scale, rather the accomplishments made regarding health goals and movement goals.
Parents play a crucial role in helping children feel loved and in control of their weight. Take advantage of every opportunity to build your child's self-esteem.
Discourage diet or weight talk when possible. Healthy eating should focus on sustainable lifestyle eating patterns rather than focusing on specific diets or restricted foods. Restricting whole food groups could lead to poor relationships with food later in life.
Lastly, be patient with the process! Muscle, tone, symptom management may change faster than the number on the scale, however, all should be celebrated.
Due to the high prevalence of childhood obesity and the possible long-term consequences, it is important for parents to understand risks, prevention, and treatment options for their child.
As a parent, you have an important role in maintaining a healthy diet and encouraging physical activity when possible.
Speak with a healthcare provider if you are worried about risks for your child.
- Childhood obesity - Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. Accessed September 1, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-obesity/symptoms-causes/syc-20354827
- Sahoo K, Sahoo B, Choudhury AK, Sofi NY, Kumar R, Bhadoria AS. Childhood obesity: causes and consequences. J Fam Med Prim Care. 2015;4(2):187-192. doi:10.4103/2249-4863.154628
- CDC. Prevent Childhood Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 1, 2021. Accessed September 2, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/features/childhood-obesity/index.html
- Childhood obesity: causes and consequences. Accessed September 2, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408699/#ref18
- Moens E, Braet C, Bosmans G, Rosseel Y. Unfavourable family characteristics and their associations with childhood obesity: a cross-sectional study. Eur Eat Disord Rev J Eat Disord Assoc. 2009;17(4):315-323. doi:10.1002/erv.940
- it4crchc. National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month Tips. CRCHC. Published August 31, 2021. Accessed September 2, 2021. https://www.crchc.org/post/national-childhood-obesity-awareness-month-tips