By Linda Hepler
Six-year-old Carlos is tall for his age. Although somewhat “stocky,” he doesn’t appear to be overweight. His friend Luke is a head shorter than Carlos but far rounder. Which child is at risk for childhood obesity?
Actually, both may be. Studies estimate that as many as 20-30% of American children today are overweight or at risk for overweight. But it’s not always easy to tell at a glance. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges a yearly “obesity checkup” for all children, whether they appear slim or chubby.
From Risk to Reality
The fact of the matter is that overweight children often become overweight adults. And both children and adults who are overweight are at risk for health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, orthopedic problems and depression, to name just a few.
The good news is that scientists know much more these days about the factors that predict obesity in children. And armed with this knowledge, parents can work toward preventing their children from becoming overweight. And if already overweight, the issue can be addressed before a child becomes obese.
Factors That Can’t Be Modified
Some predictors of childhood obesity can’t be modified. Ethnic factors such as African American or Hispanic heritage are an example; approximately twice as many of these children are overweight than their Caucasian peers.
Another factor is parental obesity. If one parent is overweight, a child is more susceptible to overweight. If both parents are overweight, this doubles a child’s risk of obesity. This may be due to environmental influences (such as unhealthy eating habits) or the genetic predisposition to burn calories more slowly than others.
Many factors that predispose children to overweight can be altered. The bottom line is that if a child takes in too many calories and expends too little energy—he or she is at risk for obesity. Encouraging physical activity while promoting a healthy diet, both in the home and in the school setting, can help to prevent overweight.
The Obesity Checkup
Your child’s physician can help you to determine whether your child is already overweight or at risk for overweight. This is done by calculating your child’s “body mass index” (BMI), a height-to-weight ratio. Age and gender are also considered in this calculation. This is because children's amount of body fat varies by age and because boys and girls mature at different times. If your child is heavier than 85-95% of children the same age, gender, and height—then he or she is considered to be overweight.
The physician can help with obesity prevention ideas, too. Small steps, such as limiting the amount of time spent in front of the television or computer, reducing the number of fast food meals consumed, and offering a variety of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins—go a long way in promoting the lifestyle changes needed to prevent future problems.
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