You may be well-aware that excess weight gain and obesity is a growing problem in the U.S. and around the world. But the long-term health and well-being concerns for these children as they drift into adulthood is perhaps most concerning. The good news is that there’s growing evidence that, if tackled early, the impact may be lessened.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 18.5% of children ages 2 to 19 meet the definition of obesity. That’s a nearly 30% increase over a 15-year period.
Across different age groups, the rate is: 13.9% among children ages 2 to 5; 18.4% among those ages 6 to 11; and 6% among kids ages 12 to 19. These numbers are quite high and may have a profound effect on kids’ well-being.
There is also a noticeable disparity among different population groups, with Hispanics being most affected at 25.8%, followed by Black children at 22%, Caucasians at 14% and Asians at 11%. And there’s a considerable disparity among different income groups, with the higher percentages of childhood obesity in lower income groups.
Here are answers to some common questions about childhood obesity:
When do we, as doctors, say that your child has excess weight gain and/or obesity?
It’s important to understand that not all children who appear overweight are obese or overweight, and this may reflect on their larger body frames and weight and growth pattern at different sates of their growth. Body mass index is used by physicians to assess whether a child is overweight or obese. This is a calculation made using weight in relation to height. Children who are overweight are above the expected normal for BMI for their age or height.
What are the causes of excess weight gain and obesity?
When your child’s physician evaluates your child for being overweight or obese, he or she will assess reasons for the excess weight gain. More often that not, there’s no single cause for obesity, and it’s related to diet and other factors that we’ll address below. That said, your child’s doctor will be looking for indication of any pathologic causes of obesity as well.
The biggest factor is a high-calorie diet. Often, children who are overweight or obese consume excess fast foods, baked goods and high-calorie snacks from vending machines. They also consume excess sugary drinks, like juices and soda.
Being generally less physically active plays a role. A lack of activity in relation to caloric intake results in the accumulation of weight as fat. Overweight children often spend more time engaging in sedentary activities like playing video games or watching TV for lengthy periods of time.
Studies have shown that psychological factors — especially personal, family or parental stress — can increase a child’s risk of becoming obese. Many children overeat to cope with their emotional problems or stress. There is a higher chance that their parents may also be facing or have faced similar problems.
Family patterns can contribute to risk. Children from families with weights above the upper end of the norm have been observed to be at higher risk to be overweight.
Kids from communities with limited resources and limited access to healthier foods are at higher risk to be overweight. Families in these situations gravitate toward buying high-calorie foods that may not spoil quickly or can be easily stored.
Occasionally, a child may gain excess weight due to an underlying medical condition. Your child’s physician will evaluate dietary history and do a physical exam, plus some lab tests, to rule out these causes. More targeted testing, including genetic testing, may also be required. These potential medical causes include:
— Prader–Willi syndrome has unique features that help distinguish from nutrition- and lifestyle-related weight gain.
— Treatment with steroids for certain disorders can cause children to gain weight. Generally, children shed this weight once they’re off steroids. Some medications that are used to treat mood disorders or psychosis can also increase weight gain by stimulating appetite.
— Hormonal causes like hypothyroidism cause kids to gain excess weight. In growing children, a simultaneous slowing down of height is also observed. Rarely, excess inherent steroid production can also lead to weight gain.
— Children with depression may gain weight due to being less physically acting and eating more to cope with their mental stress.
More from U.S. News