Rates of childhood obesity are concerning to health experts: children are being diagnosed with diabetes earlier in their lives than ever before; and nearly 20% of children are obese.
But experts are concerned not only because the child weighs more than average. In fact, most children who are obese are generally healthy physically and emotionally.
One significant concern is if children stay obese into adulthood. For adults, obesity increases their risk of developing chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Chronic conditions can be costly for the individual, as they often require additional checkups and doctor’s appointments, and often prescription medication to help manage the disease. Additionally, they’re tied to shorter lifespans.
For the health care system, chronic conditions are also an expense: 90% of the $4.1 trillion spent on health care every year is to treat people with chronic and mental health conditions.
Defining obesity in childhood
Doctors use the body mass index (BMI) to determine if a person is considered obese. The BMI is a number calculated from a person’s height and weight, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe it is a fairly reliable indicator of body fatness for most people.
For children and teens, BMI is age- and sex-specific and is often referred to as “BMI-for-age.” Children and adolescents are considered obese if their BMI is equal to or greater than the 95th percentile when compared to their peers of the same age and sex.
The BMI doesn’t measure body fat directly, but it does offer an inexpensive way to screen people. The BMI does not account for important health factors including family history, the weight of muscle mass and where excess fat is located on the body. There are variations between genders, races and ages that may affect health as well. This has caused some researchers to raise questions about the accuracy of the BMI.
The link between obesity in childhood and adulthood
Studies have shown the likelihood that a child with obesity will stay obese as an adult increases with age.
For example, children aged three and younger with obesity are generally at a low risk for becoming an obese adult. However, half of children with obesity over the age of six become obese adults. For obese adolescents, between 70% and 80% remain obese as adults.
Health experts believe this is tied to two factors.
First, a child often adopts lifestyle habits learned early in life – especially in how they approach physical activity and the foods they eat. Sedentary lifestyle habits have taken over many American households, as a rise in screen time use has affected the way we all move our bodies every day. Additionally, many convenience foods marketed to children often are high in calories but low in nutrients – like highly processed snack foods, fast food, fruit juices and other drinks high in sugar.
Second, the influence parents and caregivers have over a child’s day – what they eat and how often they are physically active – is higher when a child is young. Which means as a child approaches adulthood, they’re becoming more independent and making their own choices about their diet and exercise.
Obesity and chronic conditions
More than one in three adults are considered obese. For adults, obesity is considered a risk factor for increased likelihood of morbidity and mortality from:
- Heart disease
- Liver and kidney disease
- Sleep apnea
Obesity puts stress on the body’s physical structure: mechanically, bones and joints are carrying more weight. There are more complex changes that may occur as well with an individual’s hormones and metabolism – and it also can affect an individual’s mood.
Talk with your health care provider about your lifestyle, including your diet, exercise, health history and any medications you may be taking, to see if there are factors affecting your health.
Healthy lifestyle choices
For children and teens, early interventions can help them develop healthy lifestyle choices that will set them up for success as adults:
- Work with a child’s doctor to discuss their overall health
- School-based programs can help teach healthy habits and promote physical activity
- Teach behaviors at home to help children build a healthy relationship with food
- Children need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day. Find ways to get everyone moving as a part of your schedule – and make it fun.