How to help children maintain a healthy weight

Obesity is a risk factor for many chronic health conditions and, for many people, the struggle to maintain a healthy weight begins during childhood. Health experts emphasize the important role parents play in instilling healthy eating habits in their children.

In the 1960s, just 5% of children were obese, but the obesity rate had doubled by the early 1990s. By 2018, nearly 20% of all children were obese. And children today are becoming obese at an earlier age than ever before.

A 2020 Emory University study found that children born in the 2000s developed obesity at younger ages than children born 12 years earlier despite public health campaigns and interventions. Between 2017 and 2020, there were more than 14 million children with obesity in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite extensive studies, the causes of childhood obesity are not so easy to unpack. The most current research suggests that obesity is not simply the result of poor dietary choices and a lack of exercise. There are many different factors, including genetics and psychological factors, that determine who develops obesity.

But this much is clear: obesity predisposes people to serious health conditions in the present and in the future.

The health risks of obesity

Studies have linked obesity – and being overweight – to a higher risk of asthma, type 2 diabetes, sleep issues, heart disease, cancer and joint problems. Many children with obesity also develop anxiety and depression, and struggle with low self-esteem.

The CDC defines being overweight as having a body mass index in the 85th to 94th percentiles among children of the same age and sex. Any child at or above the 95th percentile is considered obese. 

A new study, released Wednesday, found that even modest weight gain above a healthy level can put children at risk for high blood pressure. Children with hypertension generally also have high blood pressure as adults and are more likely to experience cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, the researchers said.

The risk of developing high blood pressure within five years was 26% higher for children of the highest body weights, the study found. And for every BMI unit gained in a year, the risk rose by 4%. 

Obesity in childhood also has been linked to poorer health in adulthood. Another study found that people who were obese as children were three times more likely to die in early adulthood. Suicide and self-harm were the most common causes of death.

A healthy diet and adequate physical activity is the gold standard for maintaining a healthy weight, but some children also may need medication to suppress their appetite or bariatric surgery to keep extra weight off. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest treatment guidelines for childhood obesity include medication and surgery in some cases. 

How to instill healthy habits

The best way parents can help children maintain a healthy weight is to instill healthy habits as early as possible. That is why parental support is so important, the experts say.

Here are some tips to help children maintain a healthy weight: 

• Provide plenty of healthy options for meals and snacks, the CDC says. Their diet should consist mostly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy.
• As a family, drink more water and limit sugary drinks and processed foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fats.
• Find time for the whole family to be physically active together. According to the CDC, children ages 3-5 should be active throughout the day and those ages 6-17 years should be physically active at least 60 minutes each day.
• Reduce screen time to no more than 2 hours a day.
• Make sure children get a good night’s sleep every night. School-age children should get 9-12 hours every night. Teens should get at least 8-10 hours.
• Model healthy behaviors. When parents choose to eat healthy and be physically active, their children are more likely to do so too, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
• Teach children how to recognize their hunger and fullness cues so they only eat when they are truly hungry and not because they are bored or upset, OSF Healthcare advises.
• Take your child grocery shopping and have them help prepare healthy meals. This will help them feel empowered to make healthy decisions on their own.

Parents that are concerned about their child’s weight are advised to discuss solutions with a pediatrician. Doctors aim to slow down weight gain while ensuring children receive the nutrients that allow for healthy growth and development.