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Obesity in children
Published by Bupa's health information team, March 2009.
This factsheet is for people who are concerned about childhood obesity, or who would like information about it.
Childhood obesity is becoming more common in the UK. Too much food with a high fat or sugar content and a lack of physical activity means that many children are becoming overweight and some even develop the health problems usually seen in adults.
About childhood obesity
A sufficient energy intake is important for your children while they are growing, and a varied and nutritious diet is essential for their development. However, like adults, if they take in more energy - in the form of food - than they use up, the extra energy is stored in their bodies as fat.
The number of overweight and obese children in the UK has risen steadily over the past 20 years. In 2004 it was estimated that 14 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls aged two to 15 were obese.
If your child is overweight or obese, it's more likely that he/she will develop some serious health problems more usually seen in adulthood, such as hardened and blocked arteries (coronary artery diseases), high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Overweight children are twice as likely to be obese when they grow up than children who aren't overweight. This means that in adulthood, they will be at an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and certain cancers. The risk of health problems increases the more overweight you become.
As well as being a risk to the child's health, being overweight as a child may also cause emotional problems. Teasing about his/her appearance can affect a child's confidence and self-esteem, and can lead to isolation and depression.
Causes of childhood obesity
An unhealthy diet combined with a lack of exercise are the main causes of childhood obesity. High-calorie foods such as chocolates, sweets and fast food are cheap and readily available to children. Alongside this, physical activity and exercise are no longer a part of most children's days - some children never walk or cycle to school or play sport. Instead, many of them spend hours in front of a television or computer.
If there is a family history of being overweight or obese, your child may be more likely to be obese. Genetic factors could play a role in this, but shared eating and activity habits, or a combination of both, are more likely to cause your child to be overweight.
It's unlikely that your child will be overweight because of an underlying medical problem.
See Prevention of childhood obesity for some tips on how to change your child's eating and exercise habits and help him/her maintain a healthy weight.
What is a healthy weight for a child?
You may find it difficult to tell whether your child has temporary "puppy fat" or is genuinely overweight. Your GP will check height and weight charts (centile charts) when assessing your child to see if he/she is overweight for his/her age.
Prevention of childhood obesity
If your child is overweight, you shouldn't encourage a strict diet to lose excess weight. Instead you should help your child to maintain his/her weight so he/she can "grow into it" as he/she gets taller.
The best way to do this is to make long-term improvements to your child's diet and eating habits, while increasing the amount of physical activity he/she does.
The good news is that it's probably easier to change a child's eating and exercise habits than it is to change an adult's.
Your child should never be put on a weight-loss diet without medical advice as this can affect his/her growth. You should talk to your GP or a dietitian if you're very concerned about your child's weight.
A healthy well-balanced diet
If you're concerned about your child's weight, encourage him/her to eat a variety of nutritious foods.
Starchy foods are rich in complex carbohydrates, making them both filling and nutritious. Bread, potatoes, pasta and rice are all good sources of complex carbohydrates and should be included in your child's diet. Where possible, try to choose wholegrain varieties when cooking family meals. However, if you have a toddler, he/she won't be able to digest as much fibre as older children, so may need a slightly different diet. Your toddler may not be able to absorb important minerals, such as calcium and iron, if he/she eats too much fibre.
Try to limit the amount of high-fat and sugary foods like chocolate, biscuits, cakes, crisps and chips that your child eats. You could replace them with healthier alternatives such as fresh, dried or tinned fruit.
Try to grill or steam foods instead of frying. Burgers, fish fingers and sausages are just as tasty when grilled, but have a lower fat content. Oven chips are lower in fat than fried chips.
Don't give your child fizzy drinks that are high in sugar. Substitute them with water, fresh juices diluted with water or low-fat milk.
A healthy breakfast of wholegrain cereal plus a piece of fruit or a yogurt is a good start to the day.
Try to introduce more fruit and vegetables into your child's diet. Making small changes like adding slices of fruit to his/her breakfast or a glass of fresh fruit juice can help him/her eat five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
Changes to eating habits
Family attitudes and habits towards food and exercise need to change to support your child and achieve lasting effects.
Try to set a good example with your own eating habits.
Provide meals and snacks at regular times to prevent "grazing" throughout the day.
Don't allow your child to eat while watching television or doing homework.
Make mealtimes an occasion by eating as a family group as often as possible.
Encourage your child to "listen to his/her tummy" and eat when he/she is hungry, rather than out of habit, and to stop eating when he/she is full.
Teach your child to eat food more slowly and savour it, as he/she will feel fuller more quickly and be less likely to overeat at mealtimes.
Don't keep lots of high-fat, high-sugar snack foods in the house.
Don't make outings for fast food part of the weekly routine.
Try to get your child involved in cooking or preparing his/her own packed lunch for school so he/she becomes more aware of different types of food.
Don't label foods as good or bad - sweets and chocolate could still be given as an occasional treat.
Children should be doing at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, but four out of 10 boys and six out of 10 girls don't reach this target.
There are lots of ways you can increase the amount of physical activity your child does.
Encourage him/her to walk to school or the shops, rather than always going by car or bus.
Try to get the whole family involved in activities such as bike rides and swimming. You could suggest going to the park for a game of football, cricket or frisbee.
Visit a local leisure centre to investigate sports and team activities your child could get involved in. Guides and Scouts are a good way to get your child involved in group activities and exercise.
Make exercise into a treat by taking special trips to an adventure play park or an ice skating rink, for example.
Encourage active playtime activities such as dancing or skipping.
Physically inactive pastimes, such as watching television or playing computer games, should be limited to less than two hours a day. Encourage your child to be selective about what he/she watches to reduce the amount of time spent watching television.
The emotional factors
Food can take on emotional significance when used to comfort or reward children.
Don't use food to comfort your child - give attention and hugs, and talk to them.
Don't use food as a reward as this can reinforce the idea of food as a source of comfort. Instead of having a fast-food meal to celebrate a good school report, buy a gift, go to the cinema or have a friend to stay overnight.
Obesity in children Q&As
See our answers to common questions about obesity in children, including:
- Obesity in children. BMJ Clinical Evidence. http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com, accessed 6 August 2008
- Consequences of childhood obesity. Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), 2003. www.sign.ac.uk
- Summerbell CD, Waters E, Edmunds LD, et al. Interventions for preventing obesity in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 3. Art. No: CD001871.pub2. www.cochrane.org
- Edmunds L, Waters E, Elliott EJ. Evidence based paediatrics: evidence based management of childhood obesity. BMJ 2001; 323:916-919. www.bmj.com
- Obesity and health. Bandolier. www.jr2.ox.ac.uk/bandolier, accessed 6 August 2008
- Food promotion and children Action Plan 2005 - the facts. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, accessed 6 August 2008
- Obesity. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. http://cks.library.nhs.uk, accessed 6 August 2008
- Reilly JJ, Armstrong J, Dorosty AR et al. Early life risk factors for obesity in childhood: cohort study. BMJ 2005; 330:1357. www.bmj.com
- Measuring childhood obesity: guidance to primary care trust. Department of Health, 2006. www.dh.gov.uk
- Preventing obesity and staying a healthy weight. Understanding NICE guidance. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2006. www.nice.org.uk
- 8 tips for eating well. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 6 August 2008
- Starchy foods. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 6 August 2008
- Obesity: guidance on the prevention, identification, assessment and management of overweight and obesity in adults and children. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2006, Clinical Guideline 43. www.nice.org.uk
- Obesity guidance for healthy schools coordinators and their partners. Department of Health. 2007. www.dh.gov.uk
- At least five a week: evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health. Department of Health. 2004. www.dh.gov.uk
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
Publication date: March 2009