Childhood and Juvenile Obesity:

By — Helpguide
Updated on Nov 12, 2009

Obesity in kids is now epidemic in the United States. The number of children who are overweight has doubled in the last two to three decades; currently one child in five is overweight. The increase is in both children and adolescents, and in all age, race and gender groups. Source: National Institute of Health

Childhood or juvenile obesity has become a major health problem in many of the industrialized countries of the world. In the past two decades, the cases of childhood obesity have tripled in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, causing the World Health Organization to classify the problem as epidemic. Fifteen percent of children and adolescents in the United States are obese or overweight, and run the real risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health conditions in adulthood. In the majority of cases, the causes are simple and can be prevented. This article takes a look at how to recognize the problem, and what you can do to help reverse it or stop it before it develops.

What is childhood obesity?

Childhood obesity can be loosely defined as an excessive amount of body weight. Just how much extra weight constitutes a problem is measured by the Body Mass Index (BMI), a figure derived from a formula using a child’s weight and height. (See Childhood Obesity Assessment Calculator for a tool to calculate your child’s BMI). If a child’s BMI is 95% or higher in comparison to other kids of his or her age, sex and height, then that child is usually considered obese. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of obesity in your child is also important to determine if his or her weight is becoming a health risk.

Knowing your child’s BMI alone should not be taken as confirmation of obesity. Growth patterns vary greatly among children, and the BMI doesn't consider things like being big-boned or more muscular. Individual histories of growth and development also need to be included in the assessment. Your doctor or healthcare provider will be able to determine where your child’s BMI falls on the national BMI-for-age growth chart, and make a valid diagnosis.

Causes of childhood obesity

Over the past 30 to 40 years there have been dramatic changes in the diet and lifestyle patterns of people in Western nations. Such modifiable factors are the biggest culprits in the alarming rise of childhood obesity. The three major causes are:

  • Poor diet. Highly-processed, high-calorie meals and fast foods have become staples of the typical Western diet. Poor nutrition spells weight gain. More than 60% of American youth eat too many fatty foods, and less than 20% eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Eating habits have also changed drastically: family meals have often been replaced by munching continuously throughout the day. Cookies, chips and other high-calorie snack foods are readily available for children to fill up on. Take a good look at what is consumed in your children’s day and see how you can encourage healthier eating.
  • Lack of exercise. Our children’s leisure time has become increasingly sedentary. Television, video games and computers occupy vast amounts their free time, at the expense of physical activity. According to the National Institutes of Health, kids who watch the most hours of television have the highest incidence of obesity. The fact that kids usually munch on snack foods while watching t.v. only adds to the problem. If your child is not involved in organized sports or after-school playtime that involves cardiovascular exercise, you may want to add fitness to your family routine. The ratio of calories taken in to calories expended as energy needs to be favorable to counter any genetic tendencies towards overweight. Motivating girls to exercise is a bigger challenge, as they may be less prone to engage in physical play.
  • Genetics. Family history plays a significant part in whether your child will develop a serious weight problem. From 25-40 percent of children inherit the tendency towards overweight. If you come from a family of heavy people, and high-calorie food is readily available yet exercise is not, your children are likely to become overweight.

Children from minority backgrounds are at greater risk of becoming obese. Looking at American children age 6-11, we see the following percentages of overweight kids by race:

  • Whites (only)—11.9 percent of boys and 12.0 percent of girls.
  • Blacks or African Americans (only)—17.6 percent of boys and 22.1 percent of girls.
  • Mexican Americans—27.3 percent of boys and 19.6 percent of girls.

Poverty and obesity often go together because low-income parents may lack the time and resources to make healthy eating a family priority. Inexpensive carbohydrates are generally more fattening than more costly proteins. In addition, low-income areas typically have a limited amount of recreational facilities.

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