Obesity in Children
One out of every five children in the U. S. is overweight, and this
number is continuing to grow. Children have fewer
weight-related health and medical problems than adults,
however, overweight children are at high risk of
becoming overweight adolescents and adults, placing them
at risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart
disease and diabetes later in life.
What Causes Obesity in Children?
Children become overweight for a variety of reasons.
The most common causes are genetic factors, lack of
physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a
combination of these factors. Only in rare cases is
being overweight caused by a medical condition such as a
hormonal problem. A physical exam and some blood tests
can rule out the possibility of a medical condition.
Although weight problems run in families, not all
children with a family history of obesity will be
overweight. Children whose parents or brothers or
sisters are overweight may be at an increased risk of
becoming overweight themselves, but this can be link to
shared family behaviors such as eating and activity
A child's total diet and activity level play an
important role in determining a child's weight. Today,
many children spend a lot time being inactive. For
example, the average child spends approximately 24 hours
each week watching television. As computers and video
games become increasingly popular, the number of hours
of inactivity may only increase.
What Diseases Are Obese Children at Risk For?
Obese children are at risk for a number of
How Do I Know if My Child Is Overweight?
The best person to determine whether or not your
child is overweight is your child's doctor. In
determining whether or not your child is overweight, the
doctor will measure your child's weight and height. The
doctor will also consider your child's age and growth
patterns. Assessing obesity in children can be difficult
because children can grow in unpredictable spurts. For
example, it is not unusual for boys to appear
overweight, but they may grow taller and "grow into the
weight" a few years later.
How Can I Help My Overweight Child?
If your child is overweight, it is very important
that you allow him or her to know that you will be
supportive. Children's feelings about themselves often
are based on their parents' feelings about them and if
you accept your children at any weight, they will be
more likely to feel good about themselves. It is also
important to talk to your children about their weight,
allowing them to share their concerns with you.
It is not recommended that parents set children apart
because of their weight. Instead, parents should focus
on gradually changing their family's physical activity
and eating habits. By involving the entire family,
everyone is taught healthful habits and the overweight
child does not feel singled out.
How Can I Involve My Family in Healthful Habits?
There are many ways to involve the entire family in
healthy habits, but increasing the family's physical
activity is especially important. Some ways to
accomplish this include:
- Lead by example. If your children see that you
are physically active and having fun, they are more
likely to be active and stay active for the rest of
- Plan family activities that provide everyone
with exercise, like walking, biking, or swimming.
- Be sensitive to your child's needs. Overweight
children may feel uncomfortable about participating
in certain activities. It is important to help your
child find physical activities that they enjoy and
that aren't embarrassing or too difficult.
- Make an effort to reduce the amount of time you
and your family spend in sedentary activities, such
as watching TV or playing video games.
Whatever approach parents choose to take, the purpose
is not to make physical activity and following a healthy
diet a chore, but to make the most of the opportunities
you and your family have to be active and healthy.
Reviewed by the Department of Nutrition Therapy at The Cleveland Clinic.
Edited by Charlotte Grayson, MD
, WebMD, August 2004.
Portions of this page © The Cleveland Clinic
Last Editorial Review: 7/20/2005