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What Should I Do if My Child Is Overweight?

Like adults, overweight children can be at risk for a diversity of medical conditions. It is important, though, children's bodies are still growing and developing. Young people are vulnerable to dangerous messaging about body image and eating habits. Help your child learn healthy attitudes about food, exercise, and body image that they can carry into adulthood.

Only a doctor can diagnose a child as overweight. If you are concerned about your child's weight, consult with their doctor. If your child's doctor has determined that they are overweight, there are ways that you can help your child reach a healthy weight. 

Is my child overweight?

Childhood obesity is a significant problem in the United States. According to the CDC, obesity affects 1 in 5 children in the United States. Recent studies indicate that this rate has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

Because developing children are still growing in many ways, doctors have a complex system to assess whether or not a child is overweight.  

Some doctors rely on growth charts developed by the CDC. These place children into general categories based on their percentile in height and weight:

  • Below  5th Percentile — Underweight
  • 5th Percentile to 85th Percentile — Healthy Weight
  • 85th Percentile to 95th Percentile — Overweight
  • 95th Percentile or Greater — Obese

If your child's doctor performs an assessment and determines that your child falls above the 85th percentile in weight, they may be overweight or obese. If so, you can help. Just remember, a child should never be placed on any kind of diet or weight loss plan without the guidance of a doctor. 

What are the risks for an overweight child?

Obesity can cause problems at any age. Overweight and obese children are at elevated risk for:

What causes overweight and obesity in children?

There are many reasons a child may become overweight or obese. While some factors can be controlled through healthy choices, some require a doctor's help. 

Medical Conditions. Children's weight can be impacted by certain medical conditions. Thyroid disorders can cause a child to gain weight, as can some genetic syndromes. If your child's overweight or obesity is caused by a medical issue, a doctor can help you find a treatment plan that works. 

Medications. Certain medications can cause weight gain. Talk to your child's doctor about whether their weight may be related to their medications. 

Behavioral Factors. Large amounts of time in front of screens and little time on physical activity can contribute to unhealthy weight. Large portions of calorie-rich and nutrient-poor foods can also lead to obesity.

Environmental Factors. If a child lives in an area with few or no safe opportunities for physical activity they may be more likely to be overweight or obese.

Genetic Influence. If one (or both) parents are overweight or obese, a child is more statistically more likely to be overweight also.

How can I help my child maintain a healthy weight?

Fortunately, there are many ways a parent or caregiver can help a child maintain a healthy weight and a positive body image. 

Develop healthy eating habits. The CDC recommends keeping plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products easily available. Low-fat milk or dairy products are great choices, too. Lean meats, poultry, fish, and beans provide excellent protein. Limiting sugary drinks, sweet foods, and foods with saturated fat is a good plan.

Make staying active fun. Regular activity, according to the CDC, not only helps promote healthy weight, but also strengthens bones, decreases blood pressure, reduces stress, and increases self-esteem in children. Give your child access to fun physical activity through sports, classes, games, and plenty of outside time at parks or playgrounds. Other fun activities include hiking, swimming, and biking.

Get plenty of sleep. Studies have demonstrated a link between getting plenty of high-quality sleep and having a healthy body weight. Make sure your child is going to bed and waking up at a reasonable time, and not disrupting their sleep quality with sugar, caffeine, or screens too late in the day.

Healthy weight, happy child

Helping your child develop healthy eating and exercise habits is about much more than maintaining an ideal weight. It's the opportunity to set them up for a lifetime of good health and a positive sense of self-esteem and body image. The benefits are long-lasting.

If you are concerned about your child's weight, lifestyle habits, or body image, the first step is to contact your child's doctor. Only a medical professional can determine if your child is overweight or obese. They can assess whether the cause is lifestyle-related or caused by an underlying condition. 

Based on your child's doctor's diagnosis and advice, you can work together to make the healthiest choices for your child. 

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