Obesity is the most common chronic disease of childhood. The Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) reports this condition now affects more than 30 percent of children in the U.S. –– a number that has more than tripled since 1980. Being overweight can create many problems for a child, including damaging physical and emotional health. It can lead to even greater costs if it evolves into a lifelong struggle. Here, we examine the contributing factors of obesity, how to identify it early in children and how parents can practice healthy habits to help their kids avoid the costs of obesity into adulthood.
According to an infographic created by MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the George Washington University, obesity can affect kids of any age. Consider the following:
- Among children 2 to 5 years old, 9.4 percent are obese.
- Among kids 6 to 11 years old, 17.4 percent are obese.
- Among adolescents 12 to 19 years old, 20.6 percent are obese.
Research indicates race and socioeconomic status also play a role. Of obese U.S. adults 20 and older from 2011 to 2014, 48.2 percent were black and 42.3 percent were Hispanic or Latino. Obesity rates are also higher among those who don’t have access to high quality foods, often due to financial hardship. Experts at Boston Children’s Hospital highlight additional causes of childhood obesity, including:
- Behavioral factors. Examples include consuming large portions, eating “junk foods” that contain empty calories and spending too much time on sedentary activities.
- Environmental factors. If there are fewer physical activities at school, or if a community lacks parks and playgrounds, kids have less opportunity to burn calories.
- Genetic factors. A child has a higher risk of obesity when at least one parent is obese.
Catching obesity early
There are steps you can take to help your child avoid obesity –– and catching it early is one of them. In addition to being aware of the causes of obesity in kids, Boston Children’s says it’s important to understand how a child’s risk for obesity is determined and to know the symptoms that may indicate your child has this condition.
Because children are growing, a child’s weight must be considered in the context of other measurements, which is why healthcare providers identify childhood obesity according to the body mass index-for-age percentile. According to the OAC: “A child is defined as ‘affected by obesity’ if their body mass index-for-age (or BMI-for-age) percentile is greater than 95 percent. A child is defined as ‘overweight’ if their BMI-for-age percentile is greater than 85 percent and less than 95 percent.”
Knowing the symptoms of obesity in children is also important. Although each child may experience different symptoms, the most common include:
- Changes in appearance, including the presence of stretch marks, dark, velvety skin around the neck and in other areas and fatty tissue deposits in the breast area.
- Psychological issues, with indications of teasing/abuse, poor self-esteem, and eating disorders.
- Pulmonary difficulties, including shortness of breath with activity and sleep apnea.
- Gastrointestinal issues, including constipation and gastroesophageal reflux.
- Reproductive issues that can include early puberty in girls and delayed puberty in boys.
- Orthopedic issues, such as flat feet, knock knees and dislocated hips.
Practicing healthy habits
Since parental habits often influence kids, it’s important to model healthy behaviors for your children. Consider a few statistics:
- Eighty percent of adults don’t meet guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.
- Eighty percent of Americans don’t eat enough vegetables.
- Seventy percent of Americans don’t eat enough fruit.
If you want to help your child avoid the costs of obesity, now and into adulthood, here are six healthy habits you can practice that will help you both:
- Add color to your meals by including a variety of fruits and vegetables. If your kids know to link colors to healthy foods, they’ll be able to make better choices on their own.
- Eat breakfast and teach your children the benefits of doing so. Research shows people who don’t eat breakfast are more likely to become obese.
- Pick physical activities that everyone will enjoy, since exercising as a family is a great way to spend quality time together.
- Drink water instead of soda. Sugar-filled beverages of any kind are a major contributor to childhood obesity.
- Examine food labels and teach your kids to do the same. The quicker they learn to spot nutritional hazards, the better their chances of selecting quality foods.
- Enjoy family meals together to strengthen family bonds, ensure your kids get nutritious meals and enjoy support from one another as you embrace a lifetime of healthy living together.
Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health and occupational therapy programs.
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