Childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate and it seems to be in the news all the time. But what does the term childhood obesity really mean – and what can I do if my child is overweight?
What is Obesity?
…a condition where excess body fat negatively affects a health or wellbeing (Wikipedia)
Childhood obesity simply means that a child is carrying too much fat, which will cause them to become ill and will affect their quality of life.
How Does a Child Become Obese?
When you eat more calories than you are burning off, your body lays down fat. If you take in slightly more calories than you burn off every day, your body fat levels gradually increase and eventually you end up overweight. We are much more likely to become overweight if we eat energy-rich food (i.e. junk food) and if we are not physically active.
Obesity doesn’t just happen overnight – it’s usually the result of a very gradual increase in weight that eventually reaches harmful levels.
In a few rare cares obesity may be caused by a medical condition or genetics – but on the whole obesity is usually the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Unhealthy lifestyle choices include:
- Eating too much processed/junk food – crisps, chocolate bars, chips, fast food, sweets
- Not eating enough fruit and veg
- Not being physically active
- Spending too much time in front of the TV, computer or games console
- Eating more food than you need – big portions, using food as a reward, snacking on sweets and fast food
- Drinking too many soft drinks – including diet drinks, which encourage a sweet tooth
What are the Health Problems for Overweight & Obese Children?
Overweight and obese children are more likely to become obese adults. The health problems faced by overweight and obese children are serious - illnesses that we once thought were linked with older people, such as type 2 diabetes, are now being seen in kids.
Carrying around excess body fat puts a real strain on a child’s body. This can cause high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and breathing problems. Obesity has also been linked to the early onset of puberty in girls, which means that they face extra psychological problems as their body changes differently to their friends.
Children who are overweight often suffer from social exclusion and are frequently bullied. They may also suffer from depression and low self esteem – the idea of the jolly fat person seems far removed from the child being bullied in the playground.
Perhaps the biggest health problems for children with obesity will come when they reach adulthood. Obesity increases risk for a range of adult diseases, including heart disease, stroke & cancer. Some experts think that increasing rates of obesity will lead to a cancer time-bomb in the near future, as more and more people get this serious illness.
Luckily, in most cases, childhood obesity can be beaten. The first step is to recognise that you have a problem.
How Do I Tell if my Child is Overweight
It is very important to give overweight children the help they need as early as possible. If you’re worried that your child is overweight, you should talk to your family doctor or other health professional. In particular, talk to your doctor if you notice your child:
- Is carrying extra weight and becomes breathless whilst exercising
- Is less active than their friends or brothers and sisters
- Is reluctant to join in activities such as swimming because they are self-conscious about their size
Be extremely sensitive about the issue, as you don’t want to give your child a complex about their weight. Don’t panic about the issue, and wait for a medical assessment before taking drastic action.
The Assessment Process
When you visit a health professional to have your child assessed, they will probably measure your child’s weight and height. They will then work out your child’s BMI, or Body Mass Index.
The BMI is worked out by taking the body weight and dividing it by the square of the child’s height. This number is then applied to a graph which shows percentiles – these are typical values for other children of the same age and gender. If your child is an average healthy weight for their age and height they will fall in the 5th to 85th percentile. If your child falls in to the 85th to 95th percentile they may be overweight and further assessment may be necessary. A child that is over the 95th percentile is considered obese.
The BMI is only an indicator of potential weight problems – it does not measure body fat. It is widely used because it is easy, cheap and non invasive.
What Should I Do if my Child is Obese?
If you have found out that your child is overweight or obese you need to take action now – don’t waste time feeling guilty.
Studies show that obese children need support from the whole family if they are going to address their weight issue – so be positive and encourage your child wherever possible. Try not to focus on their “weight problem” instead focus on them getting fitter or feeling healthier. There are three main areas that you could concentrate on:
- Improve your child’s eating habits
- Help your child to be more active
- Ensure your child gets a good night’s sleep – inadequate sleep has been linked to childhood obesity
Show some solidarity with your child and try to improve the lifestyle habits of the whole family – even if you are not obese yourself, you’ll certainly benefit from being more physically active and having a healthier diet.
There are loads of healthy eating tips on our site that should help you to make some positive changes:
- Restrict sweets, chocolate, crisps and any junk food – tell family, friends, child minders you are operating a no junk policy
- Cook meals and limit the amount of convenience food you use – you can control the amount of fat, sugar and salt you are eating
- Eat together as a family without any distractions like the telly – people tend to overeat when watching TV and eating at the same time
- Increase the amount of fruit and vegetables your family eats
- Swap fizzy drinks (including diet drinks) for water or low fat milk
Children need to be active for 60 minutes every day to be healthy. This may sound like a lot but your child doesn’t have to do it all in one go – they can make up their 60 minutes progressively throughout the day. If your child is not used to being energetic you will have to start slowly and build up the amount of activity and intensity over time.
Be realistic with your expectations – a child that is used to playing on their X-box all weekend is not going want to start playing soccer 5 days a week.
Try to limit the amount of screen time your family gets – this includes computer games. Limit computer games to weekends only and set a strict time limit on them. Instead of watching TV try to encourage some activities that the whole family can enjoy together a game of Frisbee, a bike ride, digging a veggie plot. Check out our article getting my overweight child active for more tips and ideas.
With a change in lifestyle and family support an overweight child can conquer their “weight problem”. The key to it is be supportive, consistent and firm, but above all be positive.
Does your child struggle with their weight? What advice would you like to see on this site?