September is National Childhood Obesity Month in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, about 1 in 5 American children (19%) is obese, and the numbers are startlingly and steadily rising. Bringing awareness to this health crisis can help educate parents and caregivers about warning signs for childhood obesity, and how to prevent it for their children and loved ones.
Childhood Obesity is a Major Public Health Concern
It’s important to know that childhood obesity is not about vanity or looks. Childhood obesity is a serious public health issue that has serious and devastating consequences for children and families. Children who are obese have a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95% percentile (a pediatrician can perform this measurement for you). Children experiencing obesity are at higher risk for other chronic health conditions, including asthma, sleep apnea, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even many types of cancers. Additionally, children who are obese are more likely to be bullied in school, and can face mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation as they age.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity can have many causes, most of which are behavioral in nature, although metabolism and genetics do play a strong role. Lack of physical activity and unhealthy eating patterns are some of the highest risk factors for developing obesity, as is a lack of sleep, and simply not having access to a safe place to exercise or the ability to buy healthy foods (living in a food desert, for example). Many social determinants of health play a role here. Children of lower socioeconomic status are at higher risk of developing obesity than children of higher socioeconomic status, who may have better access to parks and recreation and healthy foods.
Preventing Childhood Obesity at Home
There is a lot that family and friends can do to help to prevent obesity from affecting a child’s life.
- Tracking a child’s weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) regularly can keep a child on track; if you see rapid weight gain, you can catch it more quickly and reach out to your doctor for a check-up.
- Focusing meals on fresh fruits and vegetables, and eating foods in their most natural state prevents eating additional additives, preservatives and chemicals that won’t fill a child up, but are loaded with empty calories.
- Make sure your child is active every day. Aim for 60 minutes of physical activity. This need not be a formal activity, like a soccer game. Walking the dog, helping to clean the house, and even walking around the shopping mall are all great forms of physical activity that gets a child moving and don’t cost any money.
- Limit screen time. In 2019, the World Health Organization released new guidelines for the recommended amount of screen time by age, for children.
- Make sure children are drinking water and not soda. About 40% of the calories consumed by 2-18 year olds comes in the form of these empty calories. Swapping soda out for water will save a ton of calories and will ensure that your child is filling up on wholesome, nutrient-dense calories instead.
- Make sure your child has a healthy HbA1c. Keeping tight control on blood sugars and HbA1c can prevent overtreating lows and overeating, both of which can contribute to weight gain.
- Eat healthy meals as a family. Children do what you model, not necessarily what you tell them to do. If you act as a role model with healthy meals, they will naturally follow.
- Make sure your child is getting adequate sleep. When sleep patterns and circadian rhythms are off, children’s hormone levels become out of range, and they are more likely to overeat and not be physically active. They may also fall behind in school and suffer low self-confidence, resulting in overeating as a coping mechanism. Make sure your child is getting good sleep every night of the week.
Community and Societal Support
Preventing obesity may start at home, but it takes a village to raise a healthy child. Communities should provide safe and healthy playgrounds and parks accessible to all children, and local schools should provide free, clean, and safe drinking water and lunchroom cafeterias should provide balanced, healthy meals. Schools should also encourage physical activity, and provide robust physical education classes and electives for children and teens.
Additionally, your child’s health care provider should be conducting regular physical and mental health checks, to make sure your child is on track to enter adolescence and adulthood in a healthy mindset and at a healthy weight, especially if they are living with diabetes, which can make them more prone to disordered eating.
Together, with cooperation from parents, caregivers, schools, communities and engaged pediatricians and care teams, we can work to prevent childhood obesity and set the stage for healthy children and the future (healthy) adults we hope they will become.