What is obesity?
These days, being overweight is more common than being underweight. In the last 30 years, a growing number of kids and teenagers have developed weight problems. Today, 1 out of 3 kids and teens between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight, or obese (very overweight). Weighing too much can lead to illnesses and health problems. And a child who is overweight might get teased or find it hard to keep up with friends on the playground.
What Does It Mean?
When people talk about being overweight or obese, they mean that someone has more body fat than is healthy. Everyone has some body fat, but excess fat can affect someone's health and ability to walk, run, and get around, as well as how the person looks and his or her self-esteem.
How Is It Measured?
Someone can be underweight, at a healthy weight, overweight, or obese. There is no one perfect weight for a child to be, but there are healthy weight ranges for children based on height and gender (whether the person is a girl or a boy).
Doctors use four categories to describe a person's weight:
- Underweight: A person weighs less than the healthy range for his or her age, gender, and height.
- Healthy weight: A person's weight is in the healthy range for his or her age, gender, and height.
- Overweight: A person weighs more than the healthy range for his or her age, gender, and height.
- Obese: A person weighs much more than the healthy range for his or her age, gender, and height.
But being overweight is more than a number on the scale. A doctor is a good person to help determine if a child is overweight. The doctor can look at a child's ideal healthy weight range while also taking the child's height into account. A taller child naturally could weigh more than a shorter child and not be overweight.
Perhaps the best way to assess a child's weight is to use something called body mass index, or BMI. BMI uses a child's height and weight in a calculation that results in a number. That number can be plotted on a chart that also considers the child's age and if he or she is a girl or boy. BMI is an indicator of how much body fat the person has, but it's only an estimate. Because muscle weighs more than fat, it's possible for a muscular person to have a high BMI, but that doesn't mean he or she has too much body fat. Likewise, it's possible for someone to have a low or ideal BMI but still have too much body fat.
Your child's school may provide a BMI report, but the best way to understand BMI is to talk to his or her pediatrician.
Why do people become overweight or obese?
This happens very easily in modern life. People spend more time in front of TVs or computers and less time exercising. We drive everywhere instead of walking or riding bikes. Fewer schools offer gym classes every day; more kids play video games than active games like dodgeball.
Even adults spend more time sitting at desks and in cars than they once did. Most people are not getting enough activity and exercise. People also lead busier lives so they have less time to cook healthy meals. We eat more restaurant meals, take-out food, and ready-made food from a box.
Weight problems also can run in families, but don't let that discourage your child from making changes that could help reach a healthy weight. His or her habits — what kind of food and how much he or she eats and how much he or she exercises — can make a big difference.
How can excess weight hurt your child's health?
It's hard to feel good when your child's body has too much weight to carry. Being overweight or obese can make it harder to breathe and sleep. It can make a person feel tired and cause aches or pains. A weight problem also can make him or her embarrassed, sad, or even angry. And when they're feeling bad, they may eat more because food can be comforting.
Getting help is important because weighing too much can make people sick. Overweight or obese kids have a greater chance of getting type 2 diabetes and other health problems. And later in life, they have a higher risk of getting heart disease.
How can your child keep from becoming overweight?
One of the best ways to stay at a healthy weight is to be active. Your child can join a sports team. Or, if he or she doesn't like team sports, try swimming, tennis, martial arts, or just being active in the backyard or a local park. Jumping rope, dancing, and running around will get your heart pumping.
Getting some extra exercise can be as easy as having your child take the stairs instead of the elevator or walking instead of driving your child. Being active also means watching less TV and playing fewer video games.
Eating healthy is another part of staying fit. Be sure to lead by example but taking in high quality foods. Aim for all family members to eat a variety of foods and get five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Choose water and low-fat milk over soda and other sugary drinks. When it comes to high-calorie and high-fat foods, eat them only once in a while and, when you do, have smaller portions.
What can you do?
If you are concerned about your child's weight, make an appointment with your child's pediatrician. He or she may then suggest ways of changing your eating and exercise habits.
In general, kids don't need to diet. But a child who is very overweight may need some expert help from a dietitian or a doctor who specializes in weight management. Together, along with your family, you'll be able to come up with a safe and healthy plan that will include eating nutritious foods and exercising regularly.