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Overweight and Obesity

Preventing kids from becoming overweight means making choices in the way your family eats and exercises, and how you spend time together. Helping kids lead healthy lifestyles begins with parents who lead by example.

What Health Problems Can Obesity Cause?

Obesity puts kids at risk for medical problems that can affect their health now and in the future. These include serious conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — all once considered adult diseases.

Overweight and obese kids are also at risk for:

  • bone and joint problems
  • shortness of breath that makes exercise, sports, or any physical activity more difficult. This also can make asthma symptoms worse or lead kids to develop asthma.
  • restless sleep or breathing problems at night, such as obstructive sleep apnea
  • a tendency to mature earlier. Overweight kids may be taller and more sexually mature than their peers, raising expectations that they should act as old as they look, not as old as they are. Overweight girls may have irregular menstrual cycles and fertility problems in adulthood.
  • liver and gallbladder disease

Cardiovascular risk factors (including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes) that develop in childhood can lead to heart disease, heart failure, and stroke in adulthood. Preventing or treating overweight and obesity in kids may help protect them from these problems as they get older.

Obese kids also might have emotional issues to deal with (such as low self-esteem), and may be teased, bullied, or rejected by peers. Kids who are unhappy with their weight can be at risk for:

How Are Overweight and Obesity Defined?

Body mass index (BMI) uses height and weight measurements to estimate a person's body fat. But calculating BMI on your own can be complicated. An easier way is to use a BMI calculator.

On a standard BMI chart, kids ages 2 to 19 fall into one of four categories:

  1. underweight: BMI below the 5th percentile
  2. normal weight: BMI at the 5th and less than the 85th percentile
  3. overweight: BMI at the 85th and below 95th percentiles
  4. obese: BMI at or above 95th percentile

For kids younger than 2 years old, doctors use weight-for-length charts instead of BMI to determine how a baby's weight compares with his or her length. Any child under 2 who falls at or above the 95th percentile may be considered overweight.

BMI is not a perfect measure of body fat and can be misleading in some cases. For example, a muscular person may have a high BMI without being overweight (extra muscle adds to body weight — but not fatness). Also, BMI might be hard to interpret during puberty when kids have periods of fast growth. Remember, BMI is usually a good indicator of body fat, but it's not a direct measurement.

If you're worried, take your child or teen to see the doctor. The doctor will ask about eating and activity habits and make suggestions on how to make positive changes. The doctor also may order blood tests to look for some of the medical problems associated with obesity.

Depending on your child's BMI (or weight-for-length measurement) and health, the doctor may refer you to a registered dietitian or a weight management program.

Why Do Kids Become Overweight or Obese?

A number of things contribute to a person becoming overweight. Diet habits, lack of exercise, genetics, or a combination of these can be involved. In some instances, too much weight gain may be due to an endocrine problem, genetic