I Think My Child Is Obese. What Can I Do?

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Fat boy measuring his belly with measurement tape

Did you know that in the past 30 years, the number of overweight children in the US has tripled and it is now estimated that one in five children is overweight (17%)? That overweight or obese preschoolers are 5 times more likely than normal-weight children to be overweight or obese as adults? And that childhood obesity is one of the most common problems seen by pediatricians?

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Nicholas Germanakos, MD, FAAP

Here at Westchester Health Pediatrics, we find these statistics truly alarming, and it’s our mission to do everything we can to turn the situation around. Every week we see patients who are overweight and obese, and parents who are anxious and worried. Can anything be done?

Our answer is an emphatic yes. It takes a coordinated effort from patients, parents and pediatricians, but change can take place and overweight children can start down the path to a healthier lifestyle. Further down in this blog, we give tips for avoiding, or reversing, childhood obesity.

Negative consequences of childhood obesity

As well as being several pounds overweight, childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on a child’s health and psychological well-being.

Psychological consequences:

  • Depression
  • Poor body image
  • Low self-esteem
  • High risk of eating disorders
  • Behavior and learning problems

Physical consequences:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Hypertension
  • High Total and LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood
  • Low HDL cholesterol levels in the blood
  • Sleep apnea
  • Early puberty
  • Orthopedic problems such as Blount’s disease and slipped capital femoral epiphysis
  • Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (fatty infiltration and inflammation of the liver)

Obese children are more likely to be obese as adults, and therefore are at increased risk for a number of diseases, including:

  • Stroke
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Some cancers

What causes childhood obesity? Multiple factors, not just one.

  1. Food choices: diets high in calories (including fats and simple sugars) and lower in fruits and vegetables
  2. Little physical activity: lack of physical exercise, more time spent in sedentary activities such as watching TV and video games
  3. Parental obesity: children of obese parents are more likely to be overweight themselves. Parental obesity may also reflect a family environment that promotes excess, unhealthy eating and insufficient activity.
  4. Eating patterns: skipping meals or failure to maintain a regular eating schedule can result in eating too much at one time.
  5. Parenting style: some researchers believe that excess parental control over children’s eating can cause those children to have poor self-regulation regarding food.
  6. Diabetes during pregnancy: overweight and type 2 diabetes occur with greater frequency in the offspring of diabetic mothers (who are also more likely to be obese).
  7. Low birth weight: Low birth weight is a risk factor for being overweight in several studies.
  8. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy: Several studies have shown that excessive maternal weight gain during pregnancy is associated with increased birth weight and overweight later in life.
  9. Formula feeding: breastfeeding is generally recommended over formula feeding, and studies suggest that it may also prevent excess weight gain as children grow.
  10. Parental eating and physical activity habits: parents with poor nutritional habits and sedentary lifestyles model these unhealthy behaviors for their children, who often copy them in their own choices.
  11. Demographic factors: certain demographic factors are associated with an increased risk of being overweight in childhood. For example, there is evidence that African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander children are more likely to be overweight.

Obesity can be reversed with healthy eating and exercise patterns

Just because a child is obese when young does not mean that he/she has to remain that way throughout life. Healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can be taught — and when put into practice, can change a child’s life, both physically and mentally. This usually, as they say, takes a village.

Schools play a critical role in influencing a child’s weight by establishing a safe and supportive environment that supports healthy behaviors. They also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity (the dreaded gym class!).

Your child’s pediatrician also plays a vital role in helping your child reach and maintain a healthy weight. He/she can explain the health risks and benefits of a healthy and physically active lifestyle, create a customized diet and exercise plan, and encourage your child when he/she is struggling. Also, with regular checkups, your child’s doctor is more likely to notice changes in your child’s weight, both positive and negative, and can respond quickly to issues.

Yet, it is parents who possibly have the most influence on a child’s eating and exercise habits. They can make sure there are healthy foods available at home, consult a nutritionist for meal guidelines, take their child to the gym with them, and be a cheerleader or a drill sergeant, whichever is needed.

Our pediatricians’ tips for fighting childhood obesity

  1. Serve and eat a variety of foods from each food group.
  2. Use small portions. Compared to adult portions, child portions should be very small. More food can always be added if needed.
  3. Bake, broil, roast or grill meats instead of frying them.
  4. Limit use of high calorie, high fat and high sugar sauces and spreads.
  5. Use low-fat or nonfat dairy products for milk, yogurt and ice cream.
  6. Encourage participation in play, sports and other physical activity at school, church or community leagues.
  7. Be active as a family: go on walks, bike rides or hikes together.
  8. Limit TV time.
  9. Avoid eating while watching TV. TV viewers typically eat too much, too fast, and are influenced by the foods and drinks that are advertised.
  10. Replace sugary drinks, especially sodas, with water and/or low fat milk.
  11. Limit fruit juice intake to two servings or less per day (one serving = ¾ cup). Many parents allow their children unlimited intake of fruit juice because of the vitamins and minerals it contains. However, children who drink too much fruit juice may be consuming excess calories.
  12. Encourage free play in young children and provide environments that allow children to play indoors and outdoors.
  13. Model healthy dietary practices, nutritional snacks and lifestyle activities.
  14. Avoid using food as a reward for good behavior or good grades.

If you’re concerned that your child is overweight or obese, please come see us

If you are worried about your child’s weight and the effect it is having on his/her health, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics to come in and talk with one of our pediatricians. We will meet with you and your child, assess the situation, and together with you, decide on the best course of action to steer him/her toward a healthier lifestyle, better choices and a healthier weight.

Make an appt

By Nicholas Germanakos, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics.

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About the Author: ML Ball