As obesity has become a growing issue in the modern day, it is crucial on this National Childhood Awareness Month to understand how families can support children in their journey toward achieving a healthy weight.

What is childhood obesity?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a child is considered obese when they have a BMI (Body Mass Index) at or above the 95th percentile of their peers of the same sex.

Estimates suggest that around 10% of children in the U.S. at the age of four and five are overweight, which is double the rate around 20 years ago.

Risk factors

  • Family history - Children who have parents or other family members who are overweight are more likely to develop obesity.
  • Unhealthy eating - A poor diet rich in fat, sugar, and processed food can lead to weight gain.
  • Inadequate physical activity - Lack of exercise and indulging in sedentary habits like watching television and video games can increase obesity risk.
  • Psychological issues - Some children who have issues of depression and anxiety may eat more to cope with their issues which can also lead to weight gain.

How does obesity affect children's health?

WHO classifies childhood obesity as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. Studies have shown that children who are overweight have more chances of developing obesity in adulthood and may suffer from health issues such as breathing difficulties, achy joints, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Jenny Jannov, an Oregon-based pediatric dietitian, says obesity not only affects a child's physical health, but also their social, mental and emotional well-being.

"Due to excess weight, they are at an increased risk for developing high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, breathing problems and joint issues. But I think it's the effects on their self-esteem, mental health and social problems that arise that are particularly heartbreaking. Bullying, anxiety and depression potentially affect them for the rest of their lives along with the long-term physical consequences of added weight," Jannov told Medical Daily.

How can families tackle obesity?

Although obesity has its issues, it is not advisable to put most young children on a restrictive weight loss diet unless advised by their physician, as it may affect their growth and development. Weight loss in kids should always be achieved only under the supervision of a physician.

However, families can do a lot to help children tackle obesity. They can inculcate healthy lifestyle habits in children from a young age.

Jannov emphasizes that parents have a vital role in promoting a healthy weight in children, primarily by setting a positive example. She believes parents can help their kids maintain a healthy weight by promoting family meals and ensuring a balanced diet, coupled with sufficient physical activity.

"The most important thing parents can do is lead by example, especially from an early age, as kids often mimic what their parents do, say and eat. Parents should prioritize family meals as a way to model good eating behaviors and connect with their kids. They should provide balanced, nutrient-rich meals, with fruits, vegetables, protein foods and whole grains. They should encourage physical activity and limit screen time. And this also likely works best when parents can engage in activities with their kids, again leading by example," she told Medical Daily.

However, healthy eating and lifestyle habits cannot be developed in children unless they develop a positive relationship with food.

"If we really want our children to develop a healthy lifestyle we need to teach them why what we eat matters, help them understand the nutritional value of foods, involve them in the decision-making and preparation process, avoid labeling foods (good vs. bad), avoid over restricting foods and teach kids to recognize hunger and fullness cues. What we eat and our overall health is more than simply the foods we eat. Taking a step back, slowing down and teaching our kids more about why we eat and finding joy in eating, is something that needs to be emphasized more in obesity prevention," she explained.