Head off childhood obesity -- before it leads to lifelong illness

Checkup on Health

boy playing outside on bike
Television, video games and the Internet compete with sports and outdoor activities that provide crucial exercise for children. To stave off weight problems, find an activity that your child enjoys, such as karate, dancing or skateboarding, and encourage it.

By Ulfat Shaikh, M.D., MPH, MS

It’s common knowledge that obesity has become a problem of epidemic proportions in the U.S.  But it’s not just about middle-aged folks who can’t seem to fit in daily exercise. 

Dr. Shaikh is a pediatrician at UC Davis Children’s Hospital and director of Equip CA.

If obesity among children continues to increase, some experts believe our current generation of children may become the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents.

Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades. Almost one in three American children is overweight or obese, and the numbers are even higher among minority populations.

Big problems ahead

Obese adolescents have an 80 percent chance of becoming obese adults, and have an increased risk of heart disease, joint disabilities and other problems. Some authorities estimate that a third of children born after 2000 will develop diabetes, a disease that can lead to kidney failure, blindness and loss of limbs. The earlier a person develops a disease like diabetes, the more risk of serious or deadly complications.

Social discrimination and self-esteem issues can also accompany weight problems, especially among youth.

It’s no wonder that the First Lady has made fighting childhood obesity a national priority. While convincing your child to eat healthy and exercise may seem like an impossible task, it’s not. There are many tools available to help.

Understand the causes

It’s helpful to understand the cause of the problem. There are many social and economic factors that have combined to exacerbate childhood obesity. While many seem obvious in concept, the underlying statistics are startling. Among them:

  • Convenience foods. Easier access to high-calorie, high-fat fast and processed foods, which are often less expensive than healthy foods. The average child watches 10,000 food advertisements per year on television, the vast majority for junk food and fast food.
  • More snacks. Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack a day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories a day, according to LetsMove.gov,  the website for the First Lady’s campaign against childhood obesity. And one in five school-age children has up to six snacks a day.
  • Bigger portions. Portions are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past, according to LetsMove. We are eating a third more calories than we were 40 years ago.
  • Less exercise. Americans have more access to cars than in times past. Television, video games and the Internet also compete with sports and outdoor activities. Eight to 18-year old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including, TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies. Only a third of high school students get recommended levels of physical activity.

Tips and tools

Related story

Dr. Shaikh and fellow UC Davis Health System pediatricians use the health system’s innovative telemedicine program, the Healthy Eating-Active Living Telehealth program or H.E.A.L.T.H., to help treat childhood obesity in disadvantaged rural communities. Read more 

Parents can do many things to help their child attain an appropriate weight. Here’s a sampling of the many strategies, tips and tools available to parents and families:

  • Cut back or eliminate availability of sugary beverages around your home.
  • Keep high-calorie foods out of the house or behind lock and key. Have healthier snacks such as fruits and vegetables readily available.
  • Know what your child eats at school. Look at the school menu.
  • Look for ways to make favorite dishes healthier.
  • Eat meals as a family at the dining table instead of in front of the TV or computer. This helps you monitor portion sizes and helps your child be more aware of what they’re eating and when they’re full.
  • Don’t use food as a reward.
  • Limit TV-watching and computer time to an hour or two a day.
  • Find an activity that your child enjoys, such as karate, dancing or skateboarding, and encourage it. If your child or children don't have a full 60-minute activity break each day, try to provide at least two 30-minute periods or four 15-minute periods in which they can engage in vigorous activities appropriate to their age, gender and stage of physical and emotional development.
  • See your child’s doctor for a body-mass index check and strategies on healthy eating and activity.
  • In a difficult and ongoing situation, consider programs designed especially for overweight children and teens. These offer children a chance to learn about weight control and discuss issues in a supportive environment.