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Is Your Child Overweight or Obese?

Childhood obesity is known to have immediate and long-term harmful effects on a person’s overall health and well-being.  Alarmingly, since the 1970s, the percentage of obese children and adolescents in the US has more than tripled.  As of 2016, more than 26% of individuals 2 to 19 years old were obese and 35% were overweight. Is your child overweight or obese? If so, how can you tell? Read on to learn more about it and what you can do to help manage your child’s weight.

There’s a difference between being obese or overweight

The terms obesity and overweight refer to having a body weight above what is considered normal or healthy for your height. Obesity usually means a person has too much body fat. Being overweight generally means excess body fat but it may also be related to muscle, water, or bone.  Because children grow at different rates, it can be difficult to know if they are obese or overweight. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider if you have any questions about your child’s weight.

The effects of obesity on your child’s health

Childhood obesity may have immediate and long-lasting harmful effects. These include:

  • An increased risk of having other chronic medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, and risk factors for heart disease. What’s more, children with obesity are more likely to have obesity as adults. Adults with obesity are at a higher risk for many types of cancer, heart disease, and other serious illnesses.
  • Social isolation and being bullied and teased more than children without obesity.
  • Emotional effects including depression, emotional eating, and low self-esteem.

“It’s important for parents to think about the harmful effects that can happen now and those that can occur down the road. As parents, we may not be thinking that far ahead, but there are complications that a young child might be at risk for in the future because of the extra weight he or she is carrying now. Knowing this can encourage parents to help their child make some necessary health changes.”

Charles A. Thompson, MD, FAAP

How to know if your child is overweight or obese

To determine if a child is overweight or obese, healthcare providers calculate the child’s body mass index (BMI). BMI is calculated by a mathematical formula using a person’s height and weight. A child is said to have obesity if his or her BMI is at or above the 95th percentile compared with children of the same age and gender. He or she is considered overweight if his or her BMI is at or above the 85th percentile and below the 95th.

To better understand what a child’s BMI indicates, picture a line of 100 children of the same age and sex lined up according to their BMI, from the lowest to the highest. An overweight child would have only 5 to 15 children with a higher BMI than him or her, while an obese child would be one of the 5 heaviest children in the line.

The table below shows the weight category and percentile range for BMI from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Weight Status Category Percentile Range
Underweight Less than the 5th percentile
Normal or Healthy Weight 5th percentile to less than the 85th percentile
Overweight 85th to less than the 95th percentile
Obese 95th percentile or greater

“BMI is a simple and inexpensive screening measure, but it can be a little bit difficult for parents to calculate. And once they know the BMI, parents need to know what to do with that information. That’s when a healthcare provider can help the family to understand the number by showing the growth table and where the child’s BMI plots compared with other children of the same age and gender, and explaining what the BMI is. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider to learn more about your child’s BMI.”

Charles A. Thompson, MD, FAAP

What you can do to help manage your child’s weight

If your child is overweight or obese, there are things you can do—and should not do—to help manage his or her weight. For example:

  • Work with his or her healthcare provider to make positive changes. The healthcare provider may order blood tests to see if your child has a medical problem that may be associated with obesity.
  • Live by the “5-2-1-0” rule. This means:
    • Eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
    • Limiting screen time to 2 hours or less per day.
    • Being physically active for 1 hour every day.
    • Drinking 0 sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Involve the whole family. Everyone may benefit from making positive lifestyle changes, so work together to develop healthy habits. This strategy will also help a child who is overweight or obese from feeling singled out. Start by:
    • Sitting down to meals together.
    • Involving your child in meal planning and food shopping.
    • Talking with your child about how he or she can make healthy choices at school and when he or she is away.
    • Planning family time for physical activities such as taking a walk after dinner instead of turning on the TV or computer.
  • Avoid things that can interfere with your efforts and your child’s success. For example:
    • Don’t use sweets or treats to reward good behavior or to try to stop bad behavior.
    • Don’t force your child to clean his or her plate at mealtime. Children should only eat until they feel full.
    • Don’t take away all snacks and sweets. Instead, serve healthy foods every day and offer a treat occasionally.

“It’s very hard to make a lot of changes at once or to cut certain foods out of your child’s diet completely. But small changes every day do make a difference. For example, try first decreasing the amount of sugary drinks your child drinks every day from five to four. The important thing is to slowly keep working towards your goals rather than trying to do everything all at once.”

Charles A. Thompson, MD, FAAP