What is childhood obesity?

Childhood obesity is a medical condition where a child is severely overweight for his or her age. Childhood obesity is an epidemic that affects one in three children or teens in the United States.

Over the past 20 years, the incidence of childhood obesity has doubled in children and tripled in teens.

Obesity is the biggest health issue facing children and teens today and can lead to serious health conditions or early death in adulthood. More than 80 percent of children who are obese will be obese as adults as well.

Common related conditions
Obesity Adolescent Obesity

Causes of childhood obesity

The most common causes of childhood obesity include:

  • Unhealthy eating habits — eating large quantities of foods that are high in saturated fats and calories can lead to obesity.
  • Inactive lifestyle — leading a sedative lifestyle can lead to early obesity in children.
  • Genetic factors — genetics can play a role in a child becoming obese early in life.
  • Medical conditions — although rare, medical conditions like hormone imbalance can cause a child to become obese.

Risk factors for childhood obesity

  • Heredity — if your parents or siblings are obese, you are more likely to be obese as well.
  • Psychological factors — children who suffer from depression or other psychological conditions may eat more to cope with mental issues.
  • Leading unhealthy lifestyle — children who do not eat healthy and are inactive are more likely to become obese by the time they are teens.
  • Socioeconomic factors — factors such as access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables may lead some families to eat healthier foods that can increase a child’s risk of becoming obese later in life.

Symptoms of childhood obesity

The primary sign or symptom of childhood obesity is a BMI over the 95th percentile for a child’s age and sex.

Diagnosis of childhood obesity

During your child’s pediatrician visit, your doctor will take a measurement called body mass index (BMI), which uses age and sex-specific percentiles versus peers of the same age and sex to determine if a child is obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who fall above the 95th percentile compared to peers his or her age are considered obese and those who fall in the 85 to 95 percentiles are considered overweight.

BMI calculations for children are calculated differently than adults because the composition of a child’s body differs from an adult’s body.

Other factors that may be used to determine if a child is obese include family history of obesity, psychological state, eating habits, physical activity level and overall health of the child.

Your healthcare provider may order a blood test to evaluate your blood sugar level or cholesterol level to determine if you are at risk for other obesity-related conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

Treatment for childhood obesity

Treatment for childhood obesity will vary depending upon the age of the child as well as any other medical conditions the child may have. Treatments may include:

Lifestyle modifications

Lifestyle modifications are the primary way to reverse childhood obesity. Eating healthy and maintaining an active lifestyle may help a child lose a healthy amount of weight.

Nutritious eating

Children should be encouraged to eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables and unsaturated fats. They should be discouraged for consuming too many high calorie drinks or foods such as soft drinks, chips, ice cream and candy. Portion sizes should also be monitored.

Physical activity

Physical activity is a crucial part of reversing childhood obesity. Children should aim for at least one hour of activity each day. This could be in the form of playing outside, participating in a sport, climbing rocks, riding a bike or walking to school. Any activity that gets the child’s heart rate up for an extended period is considered appropriate.

Extended screen time on a computer, phone, tablet or other device should be limited.
Developing healthy activity habits as a child can extend into the adolescent and adult years.


Some children may need medications to help with the weight loss process. Medication will be used in conjunction with lifestyle modifications. Your doctor will evaluate your case and determine what the best treatment is for your child as well as weigh the benefits and risks of medical treatment for obesity.


Surgical weight loss interventions may be appropriate as a last resort option for severely obese teens who have not had success with lifestyle changes and medications. Your doctor will determine if the benefits of surgery outweigh the risks.

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