Health conditions

Overweight and obesity in children

What is childhood overweight and obesity?

Child overweight and obesity are terms used to describe when children have an abnormal or excessive amount of body fat that increases their risk of health problems.

How are overweight and obesity in children measured?

While Body Mass Index (BMI) is a useful measure of overweight and obesity in adults, it is interpreted differently for children.

The reason for this is that children’s bodies are constantly growing and changing. To take this into account, BMI measures for children also look at the age and sex of a child. 

If you have concerns about your child’s weight, it is important to start with a proper assessment by a health professional such as a GP, paediatrician or dietitian. 

Impact on health

Overweight and obesity in childhood can have short and long-term impacts on health which include:

  • low self-esteem and depression
  • negative body image issues
  • increased risk of developing an eating disorder 
  • bullying, social isolation and discrimination
  • asthma (severity increased by obesity), sleep disordered breathing, poor exercise tolerance
  • abnormal amount of lipids (e.g. cholesterol and/or fat) in the blood, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation
  • type 2 diabetes
  • early puberty and reproductive system problems
  • constipation, gallstones, fatty liver
  • growth disorders, increased risk of fracture, flat feet.

Overweight children have a much greater chance of being obese adults and at risk of a range of future health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

For this reason, one of the most important benefits of addressing overweight and obesity in children is preventing overweight and obesity in adulthood.

The main cause of childhood overweight and obesity is energy imbalance. Over time, if children eat and drink more than they need and use in day-to-day activities, their bodies will store this extra energy as fat. There are many factors that have contributed to the increasing rates of childhood overweight and obesity, including:

  • Food choices – choosing foods that are high in fat, sugar and/or salt that provide little nutrition and more energy than the body needs (such as cakes, biscuits, confectionary, chocolate, pastries, pies, potato chips, soft drinks, cordials, sports and energy drinks).
  • An inactive lifestyle – many Western Australian children are not physically active enough and spend too long sitting (watching television, playing the computer and other electronic devices).
  • The (obesity promoting) environment the modern environment is one that makes it harder for families to be active and make healthy food choices:
    • Changes to the food supply have led to increased availability and promotion of cheap, processed foods which are which are high in energy and low in nutrients.
    • The portion size of many packaged foods and foods prepared outside the home has increased. The cost of these foods has also decreased when compared to more healthy options.
    • In general, children are spending less time outdoors and being active. This may be due to safety concerns or poor access to green spaces.
    • Where we would once walk or cycle to get to places, many people now travel by car.
    • Children are spending more time using sedentary entertainment and recreation options such as watching the television and using the computer and other electronic devices rather than getting out and being active.
  • Genes – genetic factors may increase a child’s risk of being overweight or obese and there are some rare gene disorders that cause severe obesity. Though genes alone do not explain the increase in population rates of overweight and obesity in children.
  • Overweight parents – overweight and obesity does tend to run in families. Overweight parents are more likely to have overweight children. But remember, while children share the same genes as their parents they are also exposed to the same environment.
  • Early life experiences – research shows poor nutrition, smoking and gaining more than the recommend levels of weight during pregnancy as well as low birth weight can increase the risk of a child becoming obese later in life. Evidence also shows that exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months reduces the risk of obesity in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

How to manage your child's weight

The approach to weight management varies depending on a child’s age and weight. For most children and many teenagers, the goal is to maintain their weight for a while, rather than weight loss. If you can keep your child’s weight steady, this will give them the chance to ‘grow into their weight’.

In general, the focus of weight management in children and teenagers is on changes in health behaviours that influence weight – dietary behaviours and physical activity. The best way to do this is to get the whole family involved in making healthy lifestyle changes. Healthy food choices and being more active will also have benefits for the whole family. 

Some tips for improving family and children’s eating habits include:

  • Choose foods from the five food groups and avoiding foods high in added sugar, salt and fat will help your family get the nutrients they need without the extra energy. The Australian Dietary Guidelines (external site) recommend we:
    • eat plenty of vegetables and fruit (including different types and colours)
    • enjoy reduced fat varieties of milk, yoghurt and cheese (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under 2 years)
    • eat mainly wholegrain cereal foods and breads
    • eat lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
    • drink plenty of water instead of sugary drinks like soft drinks, cordial and fruit drink
  • Have regular meal times (including breakfast) and wherever possible, enjoy meals together as a family.
  • Keep food high in sugar, salt and fat (such as potato chips, biscuits, chocolates and cakes) out of the house. Instead, have healthy snacks on hand like a container of vegie sticks in the fridge.
  • Avoid being restrictive or controlling of your child’s food intake.
  • Avoid using foods as treats or rewards.
  • Role model healthy eating habits for your children.

Some tips to be a more active family include:

  • Encourage and support walking and cycling to school.
  • Organise outings with your family that encourage you to walk around and be active such as bush walking, visiting the zoo, expos or historic sites, and bike riding.
  • Choose ‘active’ toys and play materials that encourage movement and help develop skills like running, kicking, throwing and catching, such as balls, bats, tricycles and kites.
  • Reduce the time children spend watching television or using the computer or other electronic devices for entertainment. Try introducing some family rules around screen time.
  • Be a good role model and be physically active yourself.

Where to get help

  • If you have concerns about your child’s weight visit your doctor.
  • Local community, school or child health nurse
    • see inside your baby’s purple All About Me book
    • look in the phone directory under child health centres
    • visit your nearest child health centre
  • You may also like to seek the advice of an accredited practising dietitian (external site).
  • Better Health Program (external site) – a free healthy living program for children aged 7 to 13 years, who are above a healthy weight, and their families. This is available across the Perth metropolitan area.

Remember

  • If you have concerns about your child’s weight, it is important to start with a proper assessment by a health professional such as a GP, paediatrician or dietitian.
  • One of the best ways to address childhood overweight and obesity is to get the whole family involved in making healthy lifestyle changes. 

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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