Right now, one in every six children in America qualifies as overweight or obese, which puts them at risk for poor physical, as well as mental, health. Although the CDC reports that weight issues have trended slightly downward among preschool-aged children in recent years, childhood obesity remains a prevalent national health issue. Parents often ask how we measure these two conditions, and what the differences are between the two.
We use what’s known as the Body Mass Index, or BMI, which is a height to weight ratio that also accounts for age and sex. When all factors are considered, every height has what is considered a corresponding normal weight. The BMI of someone in the 5th percentile to the 84th percentile is considered normal. Above the 85th percentile indicates overweight, and a BMI above the 95th qualifies as obese. Any time you have a child or adolescent in that 85-95 range, you want to consult a physician who can help identify some areas where lifestyle changes can be made to help him or her reach a healthier weight.
Health Risks of Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity can lead to the early onset of issues like:
And other ailments more commonly related to adulthood. It can also lead to anxiety and depression, and children with weight issues often experience low self-esteem and, unfortunately, are subject to bullying. Perhaps even worse, obese children are more likely to become obese adults, which is closely related to serious health conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
But, not all kids with a couple extra pounds should be considered at risk. As many grow taller, their weight will naturally normalize for their height. And, many children are able to improve early weight issues with very small adjustments to diet and physical activity. Only for severely obese children are regiments designed specifically for losing weight.
What puts children into the risky BMI ranges?
Lack of Physical Activity
Lack of physical activity is a prime culprit. Especially during the school year, when kids are in classes and sitting for long periods, it’s important to encourage your child to get at least an hour of exercise a day. If they’re not getting it in gym class, structuring time for family physical activity before or after school is key.
Too Much “Screen Time” During the Day and Before Bed
A very modern cause, and it is also related to inactivity, is the amount of screen time children experience today. Televisions, phones, tablets, all of these eat into time that could be spent engaged in more movement and exertion. Screen time should be limited to two hours or less per day, and ideally cut off an hour or more prior to bedtime. Lack of sleep makes it hard for anyone to maintain a healthy weight, so playing video games and consuming online content into the night needs to be nipped in the bud.
Not Maintaining a Healthy Diet
And, of course, there’s diet. We all know plenty of young people who prefer fish sticks and mac and cheese to fresh, whole foods. I tell parents that the picky eater phase is real but temporary, and urge them not to give up too soon when offering their young ones healthy food choices. It can take 10, up to 15, attempts to successfully introduce new items to your child’s palette. Make their lunch boxes and dinner plates balanced – half veggies or fruits, a quarter grains or non-processed carbs, and a quarter lean protein.
Overweight and obesity are difficult to overcome, and children who develop related risks early are setting themselves up for a difficult road to travel back to optimal health as adults. Encouraging your child to mind their diets – of food and technology – will help them stay healthy and develop good habits now that will serve them well for a lifetime. So, keep them moving, don’t give up on that broccoli, and that will help keep the weight off.
This article was authored by Joseph Chavez Carey, MD of Orange Regional Medical Group and featured in the Times Herald Record on September 26, 2017.
Joseph Chavez Carey, MD
Dr. Chavez Carey is an Orange Regional Medical Group Primary Care Physician. He is Board-certified in Family Medicine, Fluent in Spanish.
He received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine, New York and completed his internship and residency at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, California.
To make an appointment with Dr. Chavez Carey, please call 845-333-7830.