Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Childhood obesity can also lead to poor self-esteem and depression.
One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the diet and exercise habits of your entire family. Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect the health of your child now and in the future.
Not all children carrying extra pounds are overweight or obese. Some children have larger than average body frames. And children normally carry different amounts of body fat at the various stages of development. So you might not know just by looking at your child if his or her weight is a health concern.
Your child's doctor can help you figure out if your child's weight could pose health problems, using growth charts and if necessary, other tests.
When to see a doctor
Although there are some genetic and hormonal causes of childhood obesity, most of the time it's caused by kids eating too much and exercising too little.
Far less common than lifestyle issues are genetic diseases and hormonal disorders that can make a child more likely to be obese.
Many factors — usually working in combination — increase your child's risk of becoming overweight:
Childhood obesity can have complications for the physical, social and emotional well-being of your child.
Social and emotional complications
Preparing for your appointment
Your child's family doctor or pediatrician will probably make the initial diagnosis of childhood obesity. If your child has complications from being obese, you'll likely be referred to additional specialists to help manage all your child's conditions.
Because appointments can be brief, and there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for any appointments you have with your child's health care team. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and know what you can expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For childhood obesity, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to your prepared questions, don't hesitate to ask questions during your child's appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
As part of regular well-child care, the doctor calculates your child's body mass index (BMI) and determines where it falls on the national BMI-for-age growth chart. The BMI helps indicate if your child is overweight for his or her age and height.
Using the growth chart, your doctor determines your child's percentile, meaning how your child compares with other children of the same sex and age. So, for example, you might be told that your child is in the 80th percentile. This means that compared with other children of the same sex and age, 80 percent have a lower BMI.
Cutoff points on these growth charts, established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), help identify overweight and obese children:
Because BMI doesn't consider things like being muscular or having a larger than average body frame and because growth patterns vary greatly among children, your doctor also factors your child's growth and development into consideration. This helps determine whether your child's weight is a health concern.
In addition to BMI and charting weight on the growth charts, the doctor also evaluates:
Some of these tests require that your child not eat or drink anything for up to eight hours before the test. Your child's doctor should tell you whether your child should fast before a blood test.
Treatments and drugs
Treatment for childhood obesity is based on your child's age and if he or she has other medical conditions. Treatment usually includes changes in your child's diet and level of physical activity. In certain circumstances, treatment may include medications or weight-loss surgery.
Treatment for children under age 7
Treatment for children 7 years of age and older
The methods for maintaining your child's current weight or losing weight are the same: Your child needs to eat a healthy diet and increase his or her physical activity. Success depends largely on your commitment to helping your child make these changes. Think of eating habits and exercise habits as two sides of the same coin: When you consider one, you also need to consider the other.
To increase your child's activity level:
The Food and Drug Administration has approved a reduced-strength over-the-counter (nonprescription) version of orlistat (Alli). Though readily available in pharmacies and drugstores, Alli is not approved for children or teenagers under age 18.
Prescription medication isn't often recommended for adolescents. The risks of taking a prescription medication long term is unknown, and the medication’s effect on weight loss and weight maintenance for adolescents is still questioned. And weight-loss drugs don't replace the need to adopt a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
If your child has high cholesterol, it's possible your doctor may recommend giving your child a statin medication. Statins help lower cholesterol, but their use in children remains controversial, since it's uncertain what long-term side effects they might have. Because of disagreement in the medical community about treating high cholesterol in children, talk to your child's doctor about what's best for your child.
Weight-loss surgery in adolescents is uncommon. But your doctor may recommend this surgery if your child's weight poses a greater health threat than do the potential risks of surgery. It is important that a child being considered for weight-loss surgery meet with a team of pediatric specialists, including a pediatric endocrinologist.
Even so, surgery isn't the easy answer for weight loss. It doesn't guarantee that your child loses all of his or her excess weight or that your child keeps it off long term. It also doesn't replace the need for following a healthy diet and regular physical activity program.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Because medications and surgeries aren't recommended for children age 7 and younger, and aren't often recommended for children older than 7, lifestyle changes are usually the best childhood obesity treatment. Your child's best chance to get to a healthy weight is to start eating a healthy diet and exercising more.
To increase your child's activity level:
Coping and support
Parents play a crucial role in helping children who are obese feel loved and in control of their weight. Take advantage of every opportunity to build your child's self-esteem. Don't be afraid to bring up the topic of health and fitness, but do be sensitive that a child may view your concern as an insult. Talk to your kids directly, openly and without being critical or judgmental.
In addition, consider the following advice:
Whether your child is at risk of becoming overweight or currently at a healthy weight, you can take proactive measures to get or keep things on the right track.
Last Updated: 2012-05-04
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