Children between the ages of 2 to 19 years are diagnosed as obese when their body mass index, or BMI is greater than or equal to the 95th percentile. The body mass index takes into consideration both height and weight and while it is not a perfect measurement, it is a good indicator of body fat. Children will tend to have different amounts of body fat at different points in time, especially during growth periods, and the healthy range for BMI will vary based on age and gender. Children who are obese have too much body fat according to the BMI index and are at a weight that is greater than what is considered healthy for their height.
While some cases of childhood obesity are caused by a genetic predisposition or a hormonal imbalance, most cases of obesity occur because the child eats too much food without getting enough exercise. Since children are active and growing, they need extra nutrients to fuel the development of their bodies. Yet many children gain weight that is disproportionate to their rate of growth as a result of overeating, unhealthy eating, psychological eating and inactivity. With busy schedules, families may eat more fast food and quick but unhealthy meals. Children also lead a more sedentary life, spending time watching television, playing with video games and electronic devices, as opposed to engaging in physical activity. The combination of eating unhealthy foods, overeating, and lack of physical activity are the main cause of weight gain and obesity in children.
The number of children between the ages of 2 to 19 years diagnosed as obese, rises every year and as this number rises, the risk of developing serious medical conditions increases. Many of the illnesses developed as a result of childhood obesity are carried into adulthood. Some of these conditions may include:
- High blood pressure
- Bone and joint problems
- Asthma or breathing difficulties
- Sleep disorders
- Liver disease
- Early puberty
- Early menstruation
- High cholesterol
While all children gain weight as they grow, more children are gaining an excessive amount of weight, much more than necessary for proper growth and development. Additionally, obese children often suffer from low self esteem, depression and behavioral problems. Since obese children may suffer from these psychological effects, they also may be more prone to eating disorders and substance abuse as adults.
Treatment for childhood obesity focuses on making healthy lifestyle changes, depending on the age and health of the child. Children tend to model parents' behavior so it is helpful for parents to make healthy choices regarding food and exercise in their own lives. Some of the healthy changes that can help to treat obesity may include:
- Establishing a pattern of healthy eating
- Increasing physical activity
- Eating fast food less often
- Cutting down on television watching and use of electronic devices
- Not using food as a reward
In addition to healthy food choices, it is recommended that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Involving the entire family in making good choices and living a healthy lifestyle, can be beneficial to all family members.