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What Causes Child Obesity?

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Unfortunately, childhood obesity is a major problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity is 18.5% or about 13.7 million children and adolescents aged 2-19 years affected. Obesity in children can have lasting effects on their health. If you feel like your child may suffer from obesity, our experts are here to help get your child’s health back on track.

How is obesity determined?

Childhood obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI), or the ratio of weight to height, greater than or equal to the 95th percentile. A BMI that falls between the 85th and 95th percentiles is considered borderline or overweight. It is important to remember that these are just guidelines, not labels, and all children are different and need to be considered individually when it comes to their optimal weight and nutrition status. To find your child’s BMI, use this calculator or ask your pediatrician to see your child’s growth chart and discuss it with him or her.

Can obesity be prevented in children?

Starting healthy habits early is essential, as we have learned that it is not a good strategy to let kids eat whatever they want and then expect them to turn it all around when they get older. If we can prevent obesity, we can avoid deadly consequences like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, to name a few. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid and nutritional tips to help set your child on a healthy path.

This information should not replace specific recommendations from your child’s doctor. If you are worried about your child’s weight or nutritional status, talk to your pediatrician. He or she may want to order screening labs and/or refer you to a nutritionist, endocrinologist or a specific program to help.

Common pitfalls for kids include:

  1. Drinking a lot of juice/sweet drinks (soda, sweet tea, sports drinks). Too much sugar causes diarrhea, diaper rash and cavities. Kids need to be drinking mostly water. Keep the sweet drinks to no more than about once a week as a “treat.”
  2. Drinking more than 2 cups (16 ounces) of milk per day. Milk has a lot of calories and sugar. Consuming too much of this causes constipation, cavities and iron deficiency anemia. Most 12- to 24-month-old kids need whole milk. Most kids 2 years or older should switch to skim milk, 1% milk or 2% milk based on the doctor’s recommendation.
  3. Skipping breakfast. This can lead to unhealthy weight gain, headaches and poor school performance.
  4. Too much screen time and time inside. Kids should get outside or find ways to stay active as much as possible. Limiting screen time and encouraging play helps release energy, build stamina, enforce healthy habits and encourages development.

Tips for your child to stay healthy:

  1. Have three set meals per day with one healthy afternoon snack for school-age kids. Toddlers and preschoolers may need a morning and afternoon snack. Avoid all-day “grazing.”
  2. Try to eat at home at least four to five nights per week. There are many extra calories in restaurant food compared to the same meal prepared at home.
  3. Your child’s plate should be colorful! Less healthy foods tend to be white—pasta, potatoes, rice, bread—and should be limited.
  4. When children want seconds after dinner, make sure they have eaten some of the healthier items on his/her plate first.
  5. Dipping sauces like ketchup have a lot of sugar and salt. Limit it to no more than a tablespoon or so and not with every meal.
  6. You are the gatekeeper when it comes to the kinds of foods accessible to your child. It may be unrealistic to keep junk food in the house and expect your child not to eat it. Try to shop along the edges of the store: produce, meat/seafood and refrigerated sections. Avoid buying too much from the center aisles, which is where the processed food is.
  7. Avoid kids’ menus when you can. “Kid food,” such as chicken fingers or grilled cheese, tends to be fried and fatty. Select a few healthy options from the menu and let your child choose.

If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “yeah, right, there’s no way,” we hear you! Sometimes it can be hard for children, and your family, to practice healthy eating habits all the time. Remember that healthy options are always available if you just put in the work early on. For instance, order the grilled chicken instead of fried (even at the drive-through), fruit instead of fries, water instead of soda or juice, and so on. No one can do all of this perfectly. Just start early, and take steps each day to having a healthier, happier child!

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