Obesity is a widespread health problem in the U.S., affecting many children as well as adults. This condition is particularly problematic among children because it leads to health issues once considered strictly adult problems, like type 2 diabetes.
Childhood Obesity in the U.S.
Childhood obesity affects more than 14 million children and teens in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the rate of obesity among children was 19.3% for 2017–2018, the most recent years reported by the CDC.
The rate was higher between the ages of 12 and 19. Childhood obesity is also higher among specific populations, including Hispanic and Black children.
Risks Associated With Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity increases the risk of many health conditions and medical problems, including:
- Early puberty
- Eating disorders
- High blood pressure
- Joint problems
- Respiratory problems
- Sleep problems, including sleep apnea
- Type 2 diabetes
Childhood obesity is also associated with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, and lower quality of life. Overweight and obese children are also more likely to be teased and bullied.
Most children with obesity remain overweight into adulthood, and many continue to gain weight as they age. Obesity in adulthood is associated with many of the same health risks, as well as a higher risk of:
- Certain types of cancer
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
Obesity also reduces life expectancy. A 40-year-old who is obese can expect to live 6-7 fewer years than someone of the same age who is at a healthy weight.
Risk Factors for Childhood Obesity
The primary causes of childhood obesity are lifestyle factors, including an unhealthy diet and too little physical activity. Some genetic factors and hormonal variants can also play a role by making someone predisposed to weight gain.
Multiple factors often work together to cause weight gain in children, including:
Eating high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods can lead to weight gain. Fast foods, baked goods, candy, vending machine snacks, and other processed foods fit this category. Excess sugar consumption is also associated with weight gain. The average American consumes 20 teaspoons of sugar each day, which is well over the recommended six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men.
Sugary drinks, such as soft drinks and sports drinks, are the primary source of added sugar in children’s diets. One 12-ounce can of soda contains as much as 39 grams of sugar, nearly ten teaspoons.
Even beverages that can seem healthy, like sports drinks, are often loaded with sugar. One 20-ounce serving of a typical sports drink contains 36 grams of sugar.
Lack of Exercise
Children who don’t get much physical activity are more likely to gain weight. Additionally, inactive kids are likely to become inactive adults, and being too sedentary increases the risk of health issues such as heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Children who come from overweight families are more likely to be overweight. That is especially true in households where processed foods are readily available and exercise isn’t encouraged.
How to Reduce Risks and Support Healthy Children
One of the best things you can do to help your family members reach and maintain healthy weights is to encourage a healthy lifestyle and dietary habits.
- Establish new guidelines for foods that are allowed in the house. If you’re in charge of grocery shopping and meal planning, get in the habit of reading food labels. Avoid processed foods or those with excessive added sugar.
- Read labels and find brands that use less sugar in their manufacturing process. Look for natural sweeteners, such as stevia, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, or monk fruit. Avoid foods that use added forms of sugar such as high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, glucose, and other ingredients that end in -ose.
- Make sure every meal contains a source of protein and at least one vegetable, and limit simple carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, and white rice.
- Don’t keep soda or sugar sports drinks in the house. Instead, encourage your children to drink more water. Try infusing water with fruit to create different flavors that your children enjoy.
- Keep healthy snacks available, such as fruit, low-sugar yogurt, and fresh veggies with hummus.
- When rewarding children for good grades or other positive behaviors, choose non-food rewards rather than cake, candy, or ice cream.
- Encourage physical activity by scheduling family walks or bike rides in the evenings rather than just sitting in front of the TV.
Don’t be discouraged if your children are reluctant to try new foods at first. It may take some time to change your family’s eating habits.
Continue offering healthy foods and try preparing them in different ways to find options your family enjoys. For personalized grocery recommendations that can make it easy to choose better-for-you food items, try the Grocery Guidance feature in our free WellRx app.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.