Childhood obesity is an issue of major significance in developed and developing countries, owing mostly (but not entirely) to the ready availability of unhealthy foods. Although no parent intentionally wants to make their children overweight or obese, studies have confirmed that one in five American children are clinically obese as early on as primary school.
Apart from the fact that child obesity increases the chances of being overweight during teenage years and adulthood, it has also been linked to social problems and a plethora of diseases. As parents, a proactive approach must be employed to deter the early onset of obesity in our children.
Here’s the good news, though, obesity can be avoided and if your child is already obese, it can be corrected.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the factors that dispose children to obesity, its health implications and how to identify obesity. I’ll also be discussing practical steps that will help you prevent or correct obesity in your kids, so be sure to stick around and finish the article!
Table of Contents
How to know if your child is overweight or obese?
Figuring out whether or not your child is overweight isn’t always an easy task mainly because kids grow at different rates and the amount of body fat changes with age. According to a study published in the British Journal of General Practice, an astounding 80% of parents claim that their children had normal weight when they were actually obese.
A reliable way of telling if your child is actually overweight or obese is by calculating their individual body mass index (BMI). BMI measures the body weight in relation to height. BMI calculators utilize a formula that generates a score which is used to classify the owner into obese, overweight, normal weight or underweight.
The BMI for children and teenagers is categorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) using a metric called percentile. Below are the different BMI percentile ranges and what it means.
- 5th to 84th percentile: healthy weight
- 85th to 94th percentile: overweight
- 95th to 99.99th percentile: obese
Although the usefulness of BMI in determining child obesity has been well established, quite a number of parents still fail in using this approach to identify obesity in their children. If you’re in that category, here are a few signs that will help you to suspect a weight problem in your kids:
- When they look physically bigger than the other kids in their class
- When they wear clothes that are too large for their age
- When they eat the same quantity (or higher) of food as adults
- When they get easily exhausted from physical exercise
- When they detest balanced diets but crave junk foods
- When they enjoy watching TV for over three hours per day
- When they are always hungry
If you observe any of these features in your child, then taking him or her to your local pediatrician for examination would be a wise course of action.
What causes childhood obesity
Childhood obesity can be caused by a number of factors including lifestyle, psychological issues and family history. However, the major causes of obesity can be narrowed down to just two issues – eating too much and not exercising enough.
Below are more specific causes of childhood obesity.
1. Genetic potential
The phrase “like father, like son” and “like mother, like daughter” is certainly not a myth when it comes to body weight. There’s a strong genetic factor in obesity, therefore, children whose parents are obese are more likely to have weight problems than children whose parents are lean.
That said, obesity is not totally predetermined. Although genes play an important role, the things you eat (or don’t eat) play a more important role in determining which genes get expressed, including the gene responsible for obesity.
2. Junk-food addiction
The ready availability of ultra-processed (junk) foods has played no small role in increasing the incidence of obesity – especially in children. These high-fat, sugar-sweetened junk foods are designed to last long and taste so good that it’ll be almost impossible to resist.
Unfortunately, study after study has exposed this as a major cause of food addiction in both children and adults. Junk foods stimulate the brain’s reward centers, resulting in an insatiable craving for more. And once your kid gets addicted to junk foods, obesity is almost inevitable.
3. Insulin resistance
Insulin is an important hormone that controls energy storage. In simple terms, it is responsible for telling fat cells to store more fat and that, of course, results in weight gain. When kids eat junk foods, the excessive caloric content encourages insulin resistance by increasing insulin levels in the body and this results in more energy being stored as fat.
While different research studies on the effect of insulin on childhood obesity come up with controversial results, several studies have revealed a consistent correlation between high level of insulin and development of obesity. To deal with the insulin problem, increase fiber intake in your child’s diet and reduce refined sugars.
4. Inadequate exercising
The role of proper exercising in maintaining a healthy weight is indispensable because physical exercise helps to burn calories, which results in fat loss. Unfortunately many kids don’t get enough daily physical exercise and that results in the development of weight problems.
Uncontrolled access to TV and video games also play a huge role in reducing the extent of physical exercise that kids have access to. If this situation is left uncontrolled, it will greatly increase the chances of your child becoming overweight or obese.
The serious effect of childhood obesity
Childhood obesity tends to have very serious implications on the health and social life of kids. Here are a few of them:
1. Increased risk of type-2 diabetes
Children who are overweight or obese have a higher chance of developing type-2 diabetes. Type-2 diabetes occurs when the body is unable to properly metabolize glucose and it can lead to several other problems such as nerve damage, kidney dysfunction and eye disease.
2. Increased risk of heart disease
High levels of bad cholesterol and increased blood pressure are common complications that accompany obesity in children. Unfortunately, these conditions astronomically increase the risk of developing heart disease in the future. Once heart disease sets in, it can lead to heart attack or stroke.
3. Increased chances of getting asthma
Asthma occurs when the lung’s airways become inflamed and this condition has been heavily linked to obesity. Although the reason for this relationship is still unclear, studies have shown that obesity can in fact increase the risk of becoming asthmatic.
4. Development of joint pain
Joint pain is another common problem that overweight kids tend to battle with. The reason for this is rather simple – the bones can only carry so much weight before they get “tired.” However, joint pain tends to diminish as your kid begins to lose weight.
5. Sleeping disorders
Obese kids also tend to suffer from various sleeping disorders such as snoring and apnea (ceasing breath during sleep). These are usually the direct result of the excessive weight around the neck, which tends to block the airways during sleep.
6. Social problems
Children who are obese tend to be victims of bullying in school and this can result in depression, reduced self-esteem and social isolation. Unfortunately, if this is unchecked, it can remain till adulthood or even lead to suicide.
What to do if your child is obese
Since you’re still reading this, then chances are that you have an overweight or obese child. If this is the case, there’s no need to panic – it can certainly be corrected.
Since kids are still so young and are already used to an unhealthy lifestyle, helping them to undergo a lifestyle change might not be so easy – so, brace yourself. Here are some proven steps you can take to transit your obese child back to healthfulness:
1. Start a healthy eating habit
This is the most important thing you can do to help your obese child because the major underlying problem behind obesity is unhealthy eating. Proper nutrition is key to weight loss, so changing your child’s eating habits to a healthy one is absolutely critical and should be the very first thing in your checklist as you look to reverse obesity.
Since your kids will mostly eat what you buy and keep in the house, your child’s journey to fitness depends largely on you. You need to use this influence to control what they eat or don’t eat. For starters, get rid of highly processed foods from your home. These include sweets, soft drinks, chips and all other foods with high salt, fat or refined-sugar content.
Then you need to switch to clean eating – which simply means eating foods that are as natural or minimally processed as possible. Focus on fresh, whole foods instead of fast foods. Here some examples:
- Fresh fruits and veggies
- Whole grains e.g. whole wheat pasta, brown rice etc.
- Lean proteins e.g. fish and chicken.
- Low-fat dairy e.g. skim milk, Greek yoghurt etc.
However, for your clean eating plan to be successful, you’ll need to start cooking more. Cooking and eating together as a family doesn’t only come with health benefits, it also creates room for bonding.
Learn more tips about clean eating here: What Is Clean Eating (Essential Tips + Clean Eating Meal Plan)
You should probably consult your dietician for help with meal planning though. There’s a good chance that as you switch to healthier eating, your obese child will start losing some weight.
2. Increase physical exercise
Physical exercise is just as important as healthy eating for effective weight loss to occur. However, for an eight-year old kid, enrolling in the gym next door won’t sound as interesting as plying hopscotch in the backyard. So if you want this to work, incorporate fun into whatever physical exercise you design for your child.
Furthermore, since the child is already overweight, he or she may have a hard time engaging in strenuous exercise for a long period. So as a rule of thumb, aim for at least one hour of physical exercise daily, which can be broken down into 5-10-minute exercises spread throughout the day.
You should also enroll your child for a sport that he/she is interested in and offer continuous support and encouragement especially when they don’t feel like continuing.
3. Encourage more family activities
You’d be surprised how interesting physical activities can be to kids when you join them in doing it. Regularly partaking in activities that the whole family enjoys can be a great way to get your child to become active and start out on the path to fitness.
The beautiful thing here is that whether you go hiking or swimming, you don’t just help your kid to drop a few pounds but you also give them an opportunity to learn from you – to see exactly the kind of things they should be doing. Just be sure to vary the activities from time to time, so that your child doesn’t get bored.
4. Reduce TV time
Although television can seem like a great way to keep kids occupied while you focus on other tasks, various research studies have shown that watching TV, playing video games or using smartphones excessively can result in weight gain for kids.
There are two reasons why this happens – first, more screen time means less time for physical activities which burn fewer calories; secondly, more TV time means more snacking on sugary or unhealthy foods and the intake of more empty calories results in weight gain, which worsens obesity.
So, if your child must watch TV or play video games, it shouldn’t take more than an hour per day.
How to help your child stay healthy (and prevent obesity)
Prevention is better than cure. Whether you’re trying to keep your healthy-weighted kids from becoming overweight or you want to keep your once-obese child at normal weight for good, here are a few tips that can help:
1. Take out the bad stuff and make healthy foods accessible
The first step to take in ensuring that your kids eat healthy is to clean out your pantry and refrigerator.
Get rid of all sugary and overly processed foods and drinks. Replace them with healthier alternatives like fruits and veggies and ensure the healthy foods are easy to access.
2. Make their favorite dishes healthier
Foods don’t have to taste horrible to be healthy. Kids love things that taste nice and you can certainly make their favorite meals like pasta, tacos and pizza healthier by using the right ingredients. You can use extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter, top pizza with broccoli and green peppers and sneak veggies into sauces.
3. Avoid serving large portions
Even when you’re serving healthy meals to your kids, the portion sizes still matter. Start by serving small portions and let your child do the asking if he/she is not satisfied.
You should also avoid making your child clean out the plate – especially after asking for more as this may lead to excessive calorie consumption that can result in weight gain.
4. Pack a lunch
Planning weekly school lunches for your child isn’t only going to save you a lot of money, it will also ensure that your child is eating healthy. Preparing lunch helps to control what goes into their tummy when you’re not with them and this will also help them get used to healthy eating.
Some healthy lunch ideas here for your kids: 25 Tasty and Healthy Kids’ Lunch Ideas for Home or School
5. Encourage kids to sleep more
While sleep may seem like an unproductive activity, it is one of the most important things your child needs to do sufficiently to avoid being overweight. Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can result in excessive weight gain in children.
6. Keep them busy
Getting kids to do house chores regularly is another way of helping them to stay healthy. Activities such as lawn mowing, house cleaning and bed making all help kids to exercise without realizing it.
7. Set a good example
Okay, this is probably the most important thing you can do to help your kids – setting the right example. If you want your kids to eat healthy, then do it first – before their eyes! Want them to be physically active? Then exercise more.
Kids tend to learn a great deal from their parents, even more than they do from television. When you practice what you preach to your kids, they’ll soon realize you’re not trying to be mean – it’s just the way things ought to be.
Although childhood obesity is a major menace staring us in the face, it certainly can be prevented and corrected. All you need to do is to get your kids to stop doing the wrong stuff and to start doing the right things.
For starters, you need to get your kids to break up with unhealthy eating habits and place them on a healthier diet. The transition may not progress as quickly as you’d like, so you may want to take things slow.
Then you need to find fun ways of getting them active, so that they can burn fat and maintain a better physical health. Just be sure to keep a tab on your children’s weight as they grow up and check their BMI regularly to ensure that they’re within the healthy weight range.
Remember this though, if you don’t make a move, nothing will get moved. So, start somewhere, anywhere! And start today! If you apply all the tips shared in this article, a few months from now, you’ll start seeing positive changes in your obese child.
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