When it comes to children’s health, it’s never too early to encourage healthy lifestyle habits. According to national surveys, the percentage of children with obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today, almost one in ten 2- to 5-year-olds are obese and about one in five school-aged children (ages 6-19) are obese. But, there are steps we can all take to help change those statistics.
Understanding Body Mass Index
Childhood obesity, that is, having excess body fat, is a serious problem for children in our country putting them at risk for poor health outcomes. As children grow, it is important to track their height and weight. Medical professionals use a screening tool called the Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine if a child’s weight is considered in a healthy range for her or his height. The BMI combines the height and weight into a single measure and provides a rough estimate of total body fat. It is calculated by taking the weight and dividing it by the height multiplied by itself. Rather than relying on a single number, since the normal amount of body fat changes with each stage of growth and may be different for boys and girls, a child’s BMI is compared to a population of children the same age and gender. In this comparison, a child’s BMI is expressed as a percentage or a percentile of the individual’s BMI compared to a population of children of the same age and gender. These percentiles are then grouped into categories.
Health professionals use growth charts to see whether a child’s weight falls into a healthy range for the child’s height, age and gender. See the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Calculator to determine your child’s BMI percentile.
Obesity Risk Factors
Although there can be many factors involved in becoming obese including genetics, metabolism and hormones, generally, obesity is the result of an excess of the amount of energy from the food we eat exceeding the energy we use in physical activity. This results in the body storing the extra energy, primarily in fat cells, increasing the BMI. Studies have shown that elevated BMIs tend to run in families due to a genetic component as well as dietary habits, lifestyle and activity. At this time, the specific genes responsible for the genetic tendency for obesity have not been uncovered.
How Obesity Impacts Children’s Health
Childhood obesity has short-term and long-term effects on children’s physical and emotional health. Obese children may be bullied and teased more than their normal-weight peers, causing emotional issues. Studies also show that children with obesity miss more days of school compared to students with normal weights. These missed days of school, whether due to illness or to avoid weight-based bullying, can make it hard to keep up academically. Over the longer-term, children with obesity are at higher risk for having chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea as well as back and joint problems.
How to Encourage Healthy Behaviors
Prevention is the best approach to obesity by focusing on a lifestyle with a balanced diet along with regular physical activity. In most cases, once obesity is present, it can be effectively treated with a combination of a reduced calorie diet and increased physical activity.
Here are some ways to encourage healthy habits:
- Get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day: walking, swimming, sports or any activity that increases the body’s metabolism.
- Spend less “screen time” with television, computer games and phones.
- Make it easier to eat fewer calories and more nutritious foods, by planning nutritious snacks and meals.
- Avoid foods and beverages high in fats, added sugars and calories.
Studies have shown that balanced diets can be successful but must be incorporated into an on-going lifestyle approach to eating. Social support from family, friends and others can help children maintain a healthy lifestyle so that a healthy diet and physical activity become habits over time.
Learn more about how to help children maintain a healthy weight.