Childhood obesity is a major public health concern. Recent science indicates that children who are overweight or obese may manifest risk factors such as high levels of blood fats and cholesterol, poor blood sugar control, and high blood pressure, all of which may begin cardiovascular disease at a young age. The result of life-long disease progression could mean heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events in early adulthood. It is predicted that this generation of children will be the first generation with a shorter lifespan than their parents - and this is related to the diseases associated with childhood obesity.
Childhood obesity and overweight are defined in terms of body mass index (BMI), which measures weight-for-height.
A child at or above the 95th percentile of BMI amongst children of the same gender and age are considered obese. A child at or above the 85th percentile but less than the 95th percentile of BMI is considered overweight. Nearly 20 percent of our youth suffer from obesity, and even more are overweight.
Many factors determine a child's weight status; however, in healthy children with normal growth, excess weight is gained when more food is eaten than can be used in production of energy for activity. The excess food that is not burned for energy is stored on the body as fat. Recent research indicates that overweight or obese children gain most of their excess weight before age 5, or during the preschool years. For example, if a child reaches the 95th percentile of weight-for-height by age 5, they will likely remain in the 95th percentile throughout adolescence. Other population-based studies show that an obese or overweight child is likely to remain obese or overweight into adulthood.
The imbalance of too much food with too little activity can be addressed with lifestyle changes. At home, families can incorporate dietary changes that reduce the chance of a child developing obesity. Eating a main meal together as a family every, or most, days gives parents a chance to model healthy food choice and behaviors. Also, having a rounded, complete meal that includes fiber will reduce children's intake of other less nutritious, high sugar or high fat snacks. Families can also talk about foods; for example, where a specific food comes from and how it tastes, looks, smells, and feels.
Families needing to increase a child's vegetable and fiber intake can grow their own garden. Children that grow their own food may be more likely to eat the food than if it was store bought. Additionally, having children help prepare produce from the garden helps them learn lifestyle skills to help prevent obesity.
Families that are physically active together help children maintain a healthy weight. Activities like bike riding, walking, running, and swimming burn energy from food, decreasing the chance of having food energy stored as body fat. When active for about 60 minutes on most days of the week, developing obesity is less likely. For obese or overweight children, increasing activity between 60 to 90 minutes most days may help children lose excess body fat.
Reducing childhood obesity will take efforts from not only families, but from schools and communities as well. These efforts will have to take place over years and generations. It is most effective to prevent overweight and obesity in children as young as preschool age. However, if your child is already overweight or obese, attaining a healthy weight is possible with lifestyle changes.
By Christine Kasper, a Registered Dietitian at St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences Center.