Managing Childhood Obesity

Understanding Childhood Obesity

Many young people struggle with their weight. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. This is alarming because obese children have an increased risk of health problems—now and in the future.

The CDC defines being overweight as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these factors. Obesity, however, is solely having excess body fat. Children often grow at different rates with varying amounts of body fat depending upon age and gender. With these factors in mind, it can be difficult to determine whether your child is at a healthy weight.

The most accurate way to determine a person’s weight status is to calculate body mass index (BMI). The BMI measures a person’s weight in relation to his or her height. The BMI of children is age and sex-specific and known as the “BMI-for-age.” BMI-for-age uses growth charts created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A number called a percentile shows how your child’s BMI compares with the BMI of others. For example, if your child’s BMI is in the 80th percentile, this means that his or her BMI is greater than the BMI of 79 percent of children of the same age and sex. The main BMI-for-age categories are as follows:

  • Healthy weight: 5th to 84th percentile
  • Overweight: 85th to 94th percentile
  • Obese: 95th percentile or greater

Effects of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on a child’s well-being.

Obese youth are more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and are predisposed to diabetes. Children and adolescents who are obese are also at a greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as poor self-esteem.

In the long term, children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults, and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.

Developing Healthy Habits

As a parent or caregiver, you can help your child stay fit by developing healthy habits and modeling those healthy habits yourself. Children often imitate what they see and are likely to follow suit if they see others making health conscious choices and leading active lives.

It is also important to involve your whole household in living a healthful life, even if only one child is struggling with obesity. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet and exercising is beneficial for the entire family.

Small changes in five main areas can help your child achieve and maintain a healthy weight: diet, portion size, attitude about food, and exercise.

Tips for a Healthy Diet

  • Kids should eat five fruits and vegetables a day. Fresh, frozen, or canned produce all have essential nutrients. Try to mix vegetables into dishes like adding spinach to your sandwich or peas to your pasta dish.
  • Offer 100% fruit juice, water, or low-fat milk for beverages.
  • Purchase low or non-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, or cheese.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat like skinless chicken or extra lean ground beef.
  • Bake or grill instead of frying.
  • Substitute olive, coconut, or canola oil for butter.
  • Buy low-sugar breakfast cereals.
  • Make fruit based desserts.
  • Reduce the number of snacks served each day.
  • Save “treats” for special occasions.

Controlling Portion Size

  • Portions should be about the size of a fist—a child’s fist for a child’s portion.
  • Use kid-sized plates and utensils.
  • Do not make kids eat everything on their plate, especially if they are full.
  • Start with small servings and let your child ask for more if he or she is still hungry.

Developing a Healthy Attitude About Food

  • Be consistent with daily meal and snack times and set a structure for eating.
  • Have kids eat at a table in a designated area of your home, away from the TV and other distractions.
  • Have regularly scheduled family meals. This is a time to focus on enjoying food and each other.
  • Don’t use treats or desserts as a reward. Try to celebrate by doing something active.
  • Explain the nutritional benefits of what your kids are eating. At mealtime, you can make a game of figuring out which is the protein, grain, vegetable, fruit, or dairy.
  • Encourage your child to participate in preparing meals. Use this as an opportunity to educate them about healthy food preparation and portion sizes.

Keeping Your Child Active

  • Be a role model. Show your child that you exercise and enjoy leading an active life.
  • Encourage your child to find physical activities that they enjoy. Support them in joining a sports team or class, or schedule play dates at a recreation center or park.
  • Be active together as a family. Plan outings that keep you moving like playing Frisbee at the park, ice-skating, paddle boating, or nature walks.
  • Limit screen time to no more than 2 hours per day. Encourage your child to get up and move during TV commercials and discourage eating in front of a screen.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Child and Teen BMI Calculator
Let’s Move: America’s move to raise a healthier generation of kids
America’s Best Children’s Hospitals
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