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Childhood obesity is not the result of laziness, it’s a medical condition. Though it’s easy to identify, childhood obesity can be difficult to treat. Without the proper intervention at a young age, obese children may struggle with obesity—and associated health conditions—into adulthood.
The Definition of Obesity
All children look different. One child may have a larger frame and can carry more weight than someone else their age. But your child’s body mass index (BMI) alone does not define whether or not they are obese.
“A child is considered underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese. We measure this using a BMI-for-age percentile. Here, we calculate your child’s BMI and plot that value on a graph to see where it compares to other children their age and sex,” said Pratyusha Katta, M.D., Nemours pediatrician and chief pediatric hospitalist at Inspira Medical Center Vineland. “For example, if a child is in the 80th percentile, it means that 80 percent of children of the same sex and age have a lower BMI.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines the four weight status categories as:
- Underweight: Less than the 5th percentile
- Healthy weight: From the 5th percentile to less than the 85th percentile
- Overweight: 85th percentile to less than the 95th percentile
- Obesity: 95th percentile or greater
The Causes of Obesity
Overeating plays a large role in weight gain, but it is not the only reason.
“Sugar acts as a source of immediate dopamine for children, which is why they crave sweets and desserts as opposed to fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Katta. ”But this craving alone isn’t what causes children to gain weight. It’s having this craving without understanding the importance of portion control or balancing their diet with physical activity. Children need dopamine, and without the proper resources, the only source for that is food.”
Childhood obesity can also be caused by:
- Genetics and family history
- Family or personal stress
- Mental illness, such as depression
- Low activity levels
- Lack of access to healthy food
The Risks of Obesity
Childhood obesity can have a lasting impact on a child’s physical, social and emotional health.
“When our body carries more weight than it is meant to hold, it can’t function as it should. For example, a child may have difficulty breathing because their lungs can’t expand properly, or they might have high blood pressure because their heart isn’t able to pump blood at its normal speed,” said Dr. Katta.
Other complications of obesity may include:
- Respiratory distress
- Joint pain
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- High cholesterol
The Ways to Address Childhood Obesity
Helping your child achieve and maintain a healthy weight is hard—but so is watching your child suffer from preventable or reversible habits.
“Mindset is everything. When you approach the topic of weight loss with your child, avoid talking about being able to fit into clothing or comparing your child to their friends’ appearances,” said Dr. Katta. “Children should feel comfortable in their own skin, so emphasize the science behind healthy habits.”
The best way to address childhood obesity is to lead by example—eat a diet filled with fruits, vegetables and lean protein, drink plenty of water and stay active on a regular basis. Whether you’re taking a preventive or reactive approach to weight loss, you can also help your child by:
- Replacing high-sugar foods with healthier alternatives
- Incorporating more vegetables into meals
- Initiating a daily after-dinner walk
- Creating a consistent bedtime routine
As a parent, if your health is being negatively impacted due to difficulty accessing healthy food, there are resources available. Inspira offers Food Farmacies in Bridgeton and Woodbury where patients can meet regularly with a registered dietician and receive nutritious food for themselves and their families. The program is free with the goal of helping patients lead healthier lives and reduce the need for emergency medical care in our communities. A referral is required. For more information, call 856-641-6600.