September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. It’s a critically important problem: Since the early 2000s, childhood obesity has been a growing issue nationwide. A 2015-2016 Health and Nutrition survey, released by the National Center for Health Statistics, revealed that 18.5% of youth (ages 2 to 19) have obesity, a notable rise from 13.5% since the survey began in 1999. This overall rise in childhood obesity is concerning, to say the least.

What Is Childhood Obesity?

No two children are the same, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to grow at exactly the same rate. To determine whether a person or child is overweight or has obesity, tools like body mass index (BMI) and standardized age- and gender-based growth charts are used.

The BMI scale defines “overweight” as being between the 85-95th percentile for children or teens of the same age or sex. “Obese” is the 95th percentile and above. While childhood obesity is less common than adult obesity―which affects roughly 40%of the US population―it is still a complex and disturbingly common health issue.

Why Is Obesity in Kids a Problem?

While it’s easy to think, “Oh, they’ll grow out of it,” ignoring the health implications of obesity in children is dangerous. The consequences can be seriously damaging. Kids with obesity often experience issues like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. They’re also at an increased risk for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea, are also common among kids with obesity, as are musculoskeletal discomfort and joint issues, fatty liver disease, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

In addition to these physical health concerns, childhood obesity can also cause psychological stress. Because of their weight, overweight and obese kids may be teased or bullied by other kids. This can lead to social isolation (especially when combined with social distancing and virtual learning), anxiety, depression, and self-esteem challenges, so much so that kids with obesity tend to self-report a lower quality of life overall.

Furthermore, children who have obesity are more likely to also have obesity as adults, which is associated with increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many types of cancers. As a result, childhood obesity can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental health problems.

Is Your Child At Risk?

As is the case with many health conditions, numerous factors contribute to whether or not a child has obesity. Genetics can play a role, but environment is equally important. As a parent, ask yourself:

  • What health choices are Mom and Dad demonstrating for our kids?
  • Do we talk about eating healthfully and taking care of the body?
  • Are we setting an example of being physically active or sedentary?

Whether at home, at school, or in the community, educating children to know what healthy food and activity level choices look is essential.

But when it comes down to daily choices, many who struggle with obesity repeatedly engage in behaviors that influence excess weight gain. These include frequently indulging in high-calorie and/or low-nutrient foods and beverages and spending too much time on sedentary activities, including all kinds of screen time. And, as kids stay home from school to practice distance learning thanks to COVID-19, there’s even potential for the amount of screen time kids experience to increase.

Choices to Consider

If you think your child may have obesity or be at risk for it, the first thing you can do is start paying close attention.

Notice your child’s eating habits, sleeping habits, and the amount of time they spend in active play each day:

  • Are they grabbing healthy snacks, or do they reach for sugar?
  • Are they on a consistent sleep schedule?
  • Are they getting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity daily?

If not, it means there’s room for improvement―and there’s no reason you can’t start right now. With the right foods, enough sleep, and regular physical activity, your child can reap the many benefits of good health.