Childhood Obesity:  Facts, Statistics and Prevention

Obesity is a condition defined by having a BMI over 30 or above the 95th percentile of weight based on height and age. Adult obesity is a well-known epidemic in the United States, bringing the rates of childhood obesity right along with them having tripled since the 1970s according to the CDC. Childhood obesity in the U.S. is a serious medical condition that can bring about early complications such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and early death. Overeating patterns established during childhood along with an inability to control weight is one of the primary contributors to obesity in adulthood, and is likely to trigger lifelong addictive behaviors to food and other substances. When it comes to child obesity prevention, if a child you know might be obese, it’ll be important to intervene as early as possible to protect the child’s health and wellbeing, which may include changing your own relationship to food.

Quick stats childhood obesity statistics for children and adolescents aged 2-19:

  • Childhood obesity affects nearly 13.7 million children and adolescents.
  • Childhood obesity is also more common among certain populations. Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks have higher obesity prevalence than non-Hispanic whites. While non-Hispanic Asians have lower obesity prevalence than non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics.[1]
  • The prevalence of obesity correlates with the head of household’s level of education among children and adolescents.
  • Obesity prevalence is higher among children and adolescents aged 2-19 years in low and middle income groups, than in higher income groups.[2]

The risk factors for childhood obesity are complex, however there are several common factors that researchers point to as likely triggers for its development.

  • Genetics – Studies show that obesity may be 25-40% inheritable, but must also be coupled with environmental and behavioral factors to affect weight. Researchers say that while genetics may have a role in obesity, genetic factors account for only 5 percent of all cases.
  • Poor Diet and Lack of Physical Activity – Children who regularly consume high-sugar, high-carbohydrate, low-fiber diets in large portions are prime candidates for obesity. Children are also spending much less time outdoors than in previous generations due to growing technology (video games, streaming, social media, television) and convenience. A reduced energy expenditure while consuming more calories from unhealthy food sources (especially sugary beverages) is largely responsible for childhood obesity.
  • Family Behaviors – If being overweight or obese is common within a family, a child is likely to pick up on overeating behaviors, habits, and unhealthy food choices. Family dysfunction and stress also plays a large role in the development of coping mechanisms that may include overeating.
  • Socioeconomic Status – Food prices and accessibility can greatly vary depending on a household’s finances and surrounding neighborhood. This means that the quality of food can also vary depending on affordability as well as access. Children whose families face financial challenges may consume more processed meals, fast food, and high-sugar foods than those with more household income. Families with higher incomes are likely to be more educated about food in general.
  • Mental Health & Trauma – Children who have witnessed or suffered from abuse and trauma are likely to develop addictive behaviors and unhealthy coping methods such as overeating. Depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are inextricably linked to the development of obesity which can also lead to isolation, becoming socially withdrawn, and the potential for self-harm.

Childhood Obesity Solutions

Childhood obesity is linked to the early onset of several medical conditions (some of which can cause early fatality), including type 2 diabetes, childhood asthma, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, fatty liver disease, and bone fractures. Mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and addiction are also likely to affect obese children. While changing diet is an important place to start treating obesity, a comprehensive approach will help reverse ingrained behaviors that can improve health in the long-term and possibly save his or her life.

  • Making healthier choices – Searching for healthier alternatives when it comes to replacing your child’s favorite snacks might take some time, but it’s worth it. When searching for low-sugar options, be sure to avoid foods containing artificial sugars like sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin which are linked to certain cancers. You’ll can replace many refined carbohydrates with lentil, brown rice, or quinoa varieties. Feel free to experiment with vegetable combinations, high-fiber and high-protein options that will help them feel full while eating less. Also be sure to:
  • Seek a child counselor or mentor – Getting to the heart of overeating is key to breaking the cycle. You’ll want to make sure that trauma and mental health issues are addressed
  • Make appropriate portions – Try to keep their portions to appropriate sizes for their age.
  • Limit snacks and fast food – Keeping snacking to a minimum and plan their meals ahead of time to avoid hunger pangs.
  • Get some physical activity in – Try to keep the child engaged in physical activity for 30 minutes a day, 4-5 days per week. You can play a game of hide and seek inside or outside, go for a walk (walk the dog), go swimming, do chores, or dance at home.
  • Change your eating habits – Make sure you aren’t setting the wrong example for your child by investing in your own health.[3]
  • Try a food assistance program – If your household struggles to afford healthy food, applying for food assistance programs like SNAP and TEFAP can provide nutritious foods at no cost to you and your family.[4]