Obesity in Children: How Parents Can Help

Childhood obesity in the U.S. is growing at an alarming rate. According to the CDC, since 1980, the obesity rate among U.S. children and adolescents has tripled. In fact, the most recent CDC statistics indicate that approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents between ages 2 and 19 are obese. Most children become obese because of a combination of poor diet, lack of physical activity, and other lifestyle issues. In rare cases, however, a child's excess weight may be because of a specific illness.

Overweight child from the side

Obesity linked to behavior

Children who consume too many calories and don't get enough exercise are at risk for obesity. Some children, especially those in lower-income neighborhoods, may have only limited access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. The widespread elimination of recess and physical education in schools, along with a rise in sedentary behaviors like TV watching and video-game playing, also keep many children from getting enough physical activity. To help combat these factors, parents can make these positive changes in kids' lives:

  • Get your child moving. Children need at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day. This can include fun aerobic activities like playing tag and jumping rope. Set a positive example for your children by being active yourself and making exercise a part of your daily routine. Try taking a family walk, dancing, biking, or playing an outdoor game together as often as you can.

  • Emphasize fruits and vegetables. Following a healthier diet can help prevent or reverse obesity. Keep soda and chips out of the house, or have them only on very special occasions. Try serving your children kid-friendly snacks like fruit smoothies, raw veggies with yogurt dip, and celery with peanut butter. If fresh produce isn't available or too expensive, look for frozen choices.

  • Watch portion sizes. Over the last few decades, portions of foods in both grocery stores and restaurants have ballooned. Make sure your children's food intake stays within the USDA recommendations for appropriate meal sizes for each food group. One serving of grains, for example, is just a half-cup of spaghetti or one regular slice of bread. Half a small chicken breast and a small, lean hamburger patty each count as one protein serving.

Obesity linked to a medical cause

Some children become overweight or obese because of certain illnesses:

  • Prader-Willi syndrome. This genetic disease can cause insatiable feelings of hunger and a metabolism that burns fewer calories than normal. Other symptoms of the condition include low levels of sex hormones and poor muscle tone. Although there's no cure for this condition, early diagnosis can help parents take steps to prevent their children from becoming obese.

  • Cushing's syndrome. Although this disease most often affects adults between ages 20 and 50, it can occur in children, too. In children with Cushing's syndrome, growth rate slows, but the rate of weight gain increases. Cushing's syndrome is characterized by these symptoms: a moon face, acne, easily bruised skin, stretch marks, and fatigue or depression. It's caused by prolonged exposure to cortisol, a stress-related hormone in the body. The excess cortisol can be released because of tumors on the adrenal glands or pituitary gland or from overuse of steroid medications. Depending on the cause, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and medications can all be used to treat Cushing's syndrome. If you suspect your child may have the condition, talk with your child's health care provider.

  • Hypothyroidism. This is a condition caused by low activity in the thyroid gland, which controls how quickly the body burns calories. Children with hypothyroidism may be slow to grow and have delayed development. Although it is less common than delayed growth and short stature in children, many people with hypothyroidism, including children, experience weight gain. They may also have pale skin and feel tired. Medications to restore normal thyroid hormone levels can help treat hypothyroidism. Your child's doctor can conduct tests to screen for this condition.