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Childhood Obesity



Do you know when to be concerned about your child's weight? Of course, all children gain weight as they grow older. But extra pounds - more than what's needed to support their growth and development can lead to childhood obesity.
Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start kids on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
One of the best strategies to combat excess weight in your child is to improve the diet and exercise levels of your entire family. This helps protect the health of your child now and in the future.

Causes of Childhood Obesity
Although there are some genetic and hormonal causes of childhood obesity, most excess weight is caused by kids eating too much and exercising too little. Children, unlike adults, need extra nutrients and calories to fuel their growth and development. So if they consume the calories needed for daily activities, growth and metabolism, they add pounds in proportion to their growth. But children who eat more calories than needed gain weight beyond what's required to support their growing bodies.
Far less common than lifestyle issues are genetic diseases and hormonal disorders that can predispose a child to obesity. These diseases, such as Prader-Willi syndrome and Cushing's syndrome, affect a very small proportion of children. In the general population, eating and exercise habits play a much larger role.

Childhood Obesity Risk Factors

Many factors usually working in combination increase your child's risk of becoming overweight:

  • Diet. Regular consumption of high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, baked goods and vending machine snacks, contribute to weight gain. High-fat foods are dense in calories. Loading up on soft drinks, candy and desserts also can cause weight gain. Foods and beverages like these are high in sugar and calories.

  • Inactivity. Sedentary kids are more likely to gain weight because they don't burn calories through physical activity. Inactive leisure activities, such as watching television or playing video games, contribute to the problem.

  • Genetics. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be genetically predisposed to put on excess weight, especially in an environment where high-calorie food is always available and physical activity isn't encouraged.

  • Psychological factors. Some children overeat to cope with problems or to deal with emotions, such as stress or boredom. Their parents may have similar tendencies.

  • Family factors. Most children don't shop for the family's groceries. Indeed, parents are responsible for putting healthy foods in the kitchen at home and leaving unhealthy foods in the store. You can't blame your kids for being attracted to sweet, salty and fatty foods; after all they taste good. But you can control much of their access to these foods, especially at home.

  • Socioeconomic factors. Children from low-income backgrounds are at greater risk of becoming obese. Poverty and obesity often go hand in hand because low-income parents may lack the time and resources to make healthy eating and exercise a family priority.


Obesity (BMI ≥ 95th percentile) is a serious health concern for children and adolescents. Data from NHANES surveys (19761980 and 20032006) show that the prevalence of obesity has increased: for children aged 25 years, prevalence increased from 5.0% to 12.4%; for those aged 611 years, prevalence increased from 6.5% to 17.0%; and for those aged 1219 years, prevalence increased from 5.0% to 17.6%.


Healthy People 2010 identified overweight and obesity as 1 of 10 leading health indicators and called for a reduction in the proportion of children and adolescents who are overweight or obese, but the United States has made little progress toward the target goal.


Progress toward reducing the national prevalence of overweight and obesity is monitored using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The most recent NHANES data (20032006) showed that for children aged 6 11 years and 1219 years, the prevalence of overweight (BMI ≥85th percentile) was 33.3% and 34.1% respectively. These prevalence figures are more than three times the target prevalence of 5% set in Healthy People 2010.


The following graphs show trends in childhood overweight based on NHANES data for various age groups, beginning with NHANES I (19711974) and ending with NHANES 20032006 (the most recently available published data).



Prevalence of Obesity* Among U.S. Children and Adolescents
(Aged 2
19 Years)
  Survey Periods
Ages 2 - 5 5% 7.2% 10.3% 12.4%
Ages 6 - 11 6.5% 11.3% 15.8% 17.0%
Ages 12 - 19 5% 10.5% 16.1% 17.6%

*Sex-and age-specific BMI ≥ 95th percentile based on the CDC growth charts

Ogden CL, Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Johnson CL. Prevalence and trends in overweight among U.S. children and adolescents, 19992000. JAMA 2002;288:17281732.

Hedley AA, Ogden CL, Johnson CL, Carroll MD, Curtin LR, Flegal KM. Prevalence of overweight and obesity among US children, adolescents, and adults, 19992002. JAMA 2004;291:28472850.

Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Flegal KM. High Body Mass Index for Age Among US Children and Adolescents, 20032006. JAMA 2008;299:24012405.


Prevalence of Obesity* Among U.S. Children and Adolescents
(Aged 2
19 Years)
National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys
Prevalence of Overweight Among U.S. Children and Adolescents
*Sex-and age-specific BMI > 95th percentile based on the CDC growth



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