September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. Data from a study conducted by the CDC from 2015-2016 show that nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and young people 6 to 19 years of age in the United States are obese (CDC, 2018). Obesity is an excess proportion of body fat, technically defined in terms of a body mass index (BMI) of at least 30 or above. BMI is calculated in a different way for children and teens 2-to 19-years of age. BMI must be age and sex-specific because the amount of body fat changes with age for children and adolescents. Growth charts are used to verify BMI as a percentile ranking for children. A child is considered medically obese if their BMI is at or above the 95th percentile of children of the same age, height, and sex (CDC, 2017).
Children who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and depression. Also, children who are overweight or obese are bullied and teased more than their normal weight peers, which can cause children to act out, suffer from depression, and have low self-esteem. These chronic health conditions can significantly set a child back and interfere with their ability to thrive and be successful in a school setting. Moreover, obese children are at a higher risk of chronic health problems into adulthood, which can include hypertension, heart disease, renal failure, stroke, sleep apnea, hypercholesterolemia, death, and even some types of cancers (colon, breast, and endometrial) (Turner et. al., 2012).
It can be very difficult for parent(s) to manage the weight of an overweight or obese child. This is especially true if the parent(s) are also overweight and have poor eating habits. To make matters worse, some health care providers do not feel comfortable discussing weight issues with parents due to the fear of alienating or embarrassing both the parent and child. In fact, in a study provided in the International Journal of Obesity, of the 8,639 overweight or obese children aged 2-18 years of age, who visited a health care provider annually, from 1999 through 2014, only 22.12% in 1999 and 34.43% of parents in 2014 were notified by their child’s health care provider their children were overweight or obese. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) were provided to parents for this study from 1999 through 2014. The study found health care providers increased notifying parents that their child’s weight was unhealthy between 1999 and 2014. However, the opportunity for health care providers to provide clinical interventions to address or reduce childhood obesity is substantially under-utilized (Hansen et al., 2016).
So, What’s Causing Childhood Obesity?
The answer to finding the sole causation of childhood obesity is not as clear as eating too much food and not exercising enough. A number of health care providers and researchers alike believe one of the most significant problems for the spike in childhood obesity rates is directly related to the number of foods that have significant amounts of sugar. In fact, Dr. Mark Hyman from the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic thinks sugar is just as addictive as a drug. In the film documentary Fed Up, Dr. Hyman revealed that added sugars and sweeteners are causing diseases in children that were once only seen in adults.
Some key risk factors for childhood obesity include genetics, having a family history of obesity, cultural norms, limited or no physical activity, and having a low-income. It can be difficult to buy healthy foods such as fruits and green vegetables if families have a low income and live in a food dessert, where there is limited or no access to healthy foods. Some additional risk factors and challenges that are contributing to childhood obesity is unhealthy school cafeteria food which can be high in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates. Children who do not get enough physical activity at home and at school are at an increased risk for being overweight or obese. And, some children are unable to participate in physical activity where they live if their neighborhood is unsafe.
Childhood obesity prevention initiatives must be put into place for children who are overweight. If not, children will begin to experience shorter life expectancies than their parents. As children head back to school, September is the perfect month to make changes that include more physical activity at school and swapping unhealthy meals for healthier alternatives. According to the CDC, children and adolescents should participate in 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day (CDC, 2017). One of the best strategies to address childhood obesity is to take a population health-based approach, which involves spreading the word about prevention strategies that will help inform and educate parents, clinicians, and schools. We also need the federal government to support this complex health problem by implementing social media marketing campaigns that promotes healthy eating and weight reduction strategies. The government can also help by implementing legislation and policies that restrict companies from marketing unhealthy and sugary foods and beverages to children.
In honor of National Childhood Obesity Awareness month, here are some prevention strategies and tips to decrease weight and promote healthy growth for children:
- Parents should talk to their child’s health care provider for clinical interventions to address obesity
- Parents should learn how to read food labels
- Cook and eat healthy meals
- Watch food portions and avoid second helpings
- Avoid eating at fast food restaurants
- Limit or remove sugary drinks and junk foods from meals
- Teach kids the importance of eating healthy by allowing them to help cook healthy meals
- Use app-based programs to monitor physical activity like Kurbo Health or Fitbit Ace™ for kids
- Make exercise a family activity
- Parents should discuss school menus with their child’s teacher to determine if fruits and vegetables are on the menu. If not, parents should opt to make their child’s lunch and include healthy food and snack options.
- Schools can ensure children get regular recess that includes at least 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity
There are a number of great resources available online to learn how to read labels as well as healthy recipes that parents can cook for their families. Here’s a great resource of healthy recipes provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Deliciously, Healthy Family Meals (PDF). Let’s all do our part to reduce childhood obesity. Spread the word and share this article. Be Well!
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2018, January). Childhood Obesity Facts.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2017, August). What is BMI?
- Couric, K. and David, L. (Producers), Soechtig, S. (Director). (2014). Fed Up. [Documentary]. United States: Radius-TWC
- Hansen, A R., Duncan, D. T., Woo Baidal, J. A., Hill, A., Turner, S. C., and Zhang. J. (2016). An increasing trend in health-care professionals notifying children of unhealthy weight status: NHANES 1999–2014. International Journal of Obesity volume 40, 1480–1485.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2010, December). Keep the Beat.
- Turner, M., Burns, S. M., Knight, L., Ward, K., Garo, A., Morris, T., and Conaway, M. (2012). Weight management practices among heart and vascular health care providers in an ambulatory setting MEDSURG Nursing, 21(4), 222-232.
Rechà Bullock is a Certified Wellness Practitioner, Certified Worksite Wellness Specialist, Health Coach, Yoga Teacher (200-RYT), public health professional, and plant-based foodie. Her passion for health and wellness comes from a lifelong love of fitness, health, nutrition, yoga, and a desire to help people transform their health by eating foods that are nutrient rich.
Rechà's goal is to provide information to help people make food choices that are healthier for them and their families. "We cannot afford to continue to purchase and consume foods that are at odds with our health, such as genetically modified foods, steroids, antibiotics, artificial ingredients, and processed sugars."