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The Skinny on Childhood Obesity | Download Ten Tips for Parents

In the United States today, more then 1/3 of all children and teens are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity is a serious problem. It puts our kids at risk for poor health and complications down the road.

There are many myths out there about obesity. Unfortunately children (and adults) who are overweight or obese get stigmatized, teased, and treated badly. There is a misconception that kids who are overweight or obese are somehow to blame and have a lack of self-control. This is simply not true. The sooner we as a culture can see that this is not true, the sooner we can work towards keeping our kids and families healthy.

Kids gain excess weight for a variety of reasons. We know that genetics play a big role.  We also know weight problems run in families. Environmental factors play a big role, too. Many families have limited time and resources to prepare healthy meals on a daily basis. I know for me, as a busy student back in the day, I just ate whatever was quick, cheap, and easy to prepare. It took me a long time to change this pattern because I realized I was not getting what I needed with microwave dinners! Having kids was a good motivator, but it also makes prepping healthy meals so much harder because you are just so darn busy. There are simple things we can do as parents to try to prepare healthy nutritional meals with limited time. I will talk more about this so stay tuned…

We know that children who are obese have a much greater risk of being obese as adults.  

Childhood obesity is associated with many chronic health conditions including high cholesterol, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, asthma, and cardiovascular disease.  

The social implications are huge, too.  The bullying that happens to children and adolescents who are overweight or obese is awful, and unfortunately very real.  Bullying, as we know, causes many problems for kids, including anxiety, depression, and low self –esteem. We need to change our view of obesity and see it as a medical condition, just like we would see someone with a food allergy or diabetes. Hopefully, we can put an end to the bullying, and hurt that it causes, and focus on prevention and staying healthy.  

Classifying a Child as Overweight or Obese:

In the medical world, we use the body mass index (BMI) as a tool to assess a person’s amount of body fat. The BMI is a measure of body weight adjusted for height. For children age 2-20 we use BMI to classify if someone is overweight or obese. There are many BMI calculators out there on the web that you can check your own BMI with, or just ask your doctor.

A child is Overweight if his/her BMI is in the 85th -95th percentile for age and sex

A child is Obese if his/her is BMI greater then the 95th percentile for age and sex

Causes for Excess Weight:

Research as shown that childhood obesity is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Childhood Obesity Genetic Factors:

Children who are overweight or obese often have a parent who is overweight or obese.  We know that as a child gets older, her risk for remaining overweight is much higher if her parent(s) is also overweight.

Having one parent that is obese increases the risk of obesity by 2-3 fold in the child. If both parents are obese the risk is up to 15 fold for the child. So unfortunately, genes play a big role.

Childhood Obesity Environmental Factors:

High glycemic index foods:

Our grocery stores and restaurants are filled with foods now that have a higher glycemic index. A food with a high glycemic index rapidly raises your blood sugar beyond what is healthy. This puts you more at risk for weight gain because you cannot use all the blood sugar for energy after you eat the food, unless you are exercising.  These foods are things like white bread, soda, cookies, crackers, white potatoes, rice, and sugary treats.  Low glycemic index foods are much better for you. They give you energy without the major spikes in blood sugar. These include foods like sweet potatoes, whole grain bread, vegetables, steal cut oatmeal, lentils, chickpeas, low fat yogurt, peanuts, skim milk. It is ok to have some high glycemic foods in your diet, but it is important to make sure you are getting exercise and have a balance of low glycemic foods, too.

Sugar-containing beverages:

Soda, sports drinks, and fruit juices cause major spikes in blood sugar. They can lead to excess weight gain. They are really not recommended for kids. Juice is not a substitute for whole fruit. Eating a whole fruit gives you vitamins and fiber and not all the excess sugar. Soda is just not good for kids, or anyone.

Larger portion sizes:

We as a culture have started eating more and more. One rule of thumb to prevent this is to eat slowly, so your body can tell you when it is full. When you are eating quickly it is very hard to tell when you feel full and satiated until you are VERY full.   Also drink plenty of water. Often when we are dehydrated, we tend to feel hungry.

Fast foods:

Fast foods are high is saturated fats, low in healthy vitamins and nutrients, and raise your blood sugar.

Diminished family presence at meals:

Many families who have both parents working, or different activities for each kid, rarely get to sit down together to have a meal. Research shows though that families tend to eat better and not overeat when they can sit down together and spend time eating. It is very important too that families not eat in front of the television. People tend to overeat when they are not paying attention and are distracted by TV.

Decrease in physical activity:

Kids are more sedentary these days. Part of this is related to screen time, part of this is related to where kids live, and a lack of safe play spaces, and part of this is related to busy schedules.

Sleep deprivation:
We know from studying people and animals that poor sleep can cause people to eat more and put on more weight due to increases in stress hormones and other hormones.

Availability of safe play spaces, sidewalks, and parks

Kids used to be able to bike across town with less parental supervision, this really doesn’t happen as much any more.  We have to work extra hard as families to make sure we can all get enough exercise in together.

Medical conditions:

There are some cases where a hormone imbalance, like hypothyroidism, can cause a child to be overweight. Most of the time this is not the case but your doctor should be able to rule out these causes.

If you are worried about your child’s weight:

It would be good to set her up with regular visits to her doctor. Your doctor can make sure there are no other health issues going on. You can also check her BMI and follow it over time. Sometimes seeing a dietician can help to in picking out healthy foods and setting up meal plans.

The biggest thing you can do as a parent is to be patient and create a positive environment surrounding eating and exercise. Try not to put too much focus on the weight. Don’t limit how much food your kids eat. instead offer foods that are healthy like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Limit screen time, including TV, video games, computers, tablets.

Encourage participation in sports, community events, or other activities. Suggest playing tag, bikes rides, or walks as a whole family.

Get the whole family involved! Your child will be likely continue an active lifestyle as she grows up if she sees her parents being active too.

Make sure your kid is getting enough sleep.

Talk to your child. Do things with your kids that boost self esteem. Make sure she is not being teased. If you are concerned about bullying, most schools have anti- bullying policies in place to intervene and put a stop to it.


Dr. Sarah Logan, MD is a full time mom and part-time family doctor in Vermont with experience in both Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine. She loves working with people of all ages, but her true passion is working with kids! She has 2 little guys (ages 1 and 3) at home, who keep her on my toes.

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