Childhood obesity rates in the United States have risen dramatically in the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity in children ages 6-11 years more than doubled from 1980 to 2012. Obesity quadrupled in adolescents ages 12–19 during that same time frame.
While obesity can cause immediate health problems in children, long-term health may be of even greater concern. Research suggests that 70 percent of obese children ages 5–17 years old already have at least one risk factor -- such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol -- for cardiovascular disease. Additionally, most obese children will remain obese into and throughout adulthood, which increases the likelihood of additional cardiovascular risk factors.
The Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease Connection
Obesity is a risk factor for many cardiovascular diseases and conditions, as well as diabetes. It increases the risk of the following in adulthood:
Is My Child’s Weight Healthy?
Whenever you take your child to a pediatrician, you should ask if your child’s weight is healthy for his or her age and height. In between appointments, you may wish to calculate your child’s body mass index (BMI) as a rough estimate. The CDC has produced a calculator specifically for children.
BMI is an estimate of body fat based on height and weight. Your child’s BMI will correspond to a percentiles chart comparing his or her weight with that of other children of the same age and sex. This is referred to as “BMI-for-age.” For example, a child whose weight is in the 60th percentile weighs more than 60 percent of children of the same sex, height and weight. Overweight, which is weight that is above normal but not yet obese, is defined as the 85th to 94th percentile. Obese is defined as the 95th percentile and above. As children grow to adulthood, there may be natural variation in BMI at times of rapid growth or maturation in the teen years.
Helping Your Child Maintain a Healthy Weight
Even if your child’s weight is in a healthy range for his or her age, you will want to encourage regular physical activity and good eating habits. Habits formed and reinforced in childhood will have the highest impact into adulthood.
If your child is overweight or obese, talk with his or her pediatrician about how to encourage your child to lose weight. The following tips can help you get started in introducing habits for a healthy weight:
- Discuss the issues with your child. Honest, open, ongoing and non-judgmental conversations with your child are crucial in order to create healthy habits and long-lasting behaviors. Understand how your children view their own body types, which may be either very perceptive or possibly could be false. Creating common goals and rewards with your kids can be great motivation for the whole family.
- Encourage physical activity. Talk with your pediatrician about the types and duration of physical activity that are recommended for your child’s age and ability level. If your child is reluctant to get outside for activity or doesn’t have good play areas, go for a walk or bike ride together. Making exercise a group activity will benefit the entire family. Make being active a regular and recurring theme throughout the week. Especially during the school year, you may have to adjust what is reasonably possible during the week and over the weekend.
- Reduce foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium. Try to limit your child’s consumption of heavily processed foods, which can be high in fat, sugar and sodium. Read the Nutrition Facts labels on grocery store items and understand what they mean. When you dine out, ask the server or chef about healthier items on the menu, or if modifications can be made, such as limiting use of high-fat butter or cream.
- Eat at home more. Limiting calories is rarely a priority for restaurants. Large portion sizes may have the appearance of being a better price value, but they also encourage overeating. When you cook at home, you also know exactly what ingredients and how much of them are being used. Over time, your understanding of and motivation for healthy foods certainly will grow.
- Help your child make better food choices. Teach your child about a balanced meal, portion sizes and caloric contents of snacks. This may mean becoming more familiar with heart-healthy nutrition yourself. If you teach your child about good nutrition, he or she will be better able to make heart-healthy food choices at school or friends’ houses when you aren’t there. To encourage portion size limits, wait 5–10 minutes before providing “seconds”; the urge to eat more may pass.
- Limit screen time. Set specific limits on how long your child can sit in front of the television or with a computer, tablet or handheld video game during the week as well as on the weekend. Use a countdown timer to give your child notice as to how much time he or she has left. Emerging research suggests that being sedentary is one of the worst things you can do for cardiovascular health, so limiting screen time and keeping active are important beyond just weight control.
If your child’s pediatrician tells you that your child is overweight or obese, you may be inclined to jump into a strict diet and physical activity plan for him or her out of concern. However, gradual changes will be more sustainable and will set healthy patterns for a lifetime. Try to strike a balance and be supportive and encourage a healthy body image in your child, without focusing too strongly on your child’s weight. It is not uncommon for obese children to be facing social problems at school or to be struggling with low self-esteem. Your child may already feel as if too much attention is being paid to his or her weight.
Questions to Ask Your Child’s Healthcare Provider
- Is my child’s weight healthy for him or her?
- What can I do to help my child maintain a healthy weight?
- Does the diet I am feeding my child support a healthy weight? If not, how can I make adjustments to the meals I am serving to my child?
- Is my child getting enough exercise for his or her age group and ability level?
- How can I encourage good eating and exercise habits in my child when he or she is away from home?
A healthy weight in childhood will put your child on the path for a heart-healthy future. Childhood obesity often carries over into adulthood. Establishing strong exercise and diet habits now can give your child lifelong tools to manage his or her weight.
For more information about heart-healthy living for the entire family, visit the Nutrition, Diet and Your Heart center. For more on children and cardiovascular health, visit the Pediatric Heart Centers.