About childhood obesity
Overweight and obesity are terms you might hear when children are above their healthiest weight and have too much body fat. Obesity is a more serious form of overweight.
Overweight and obesity happen when the energy children get from food and drinks is greater than the energy they use through physical activity, growing and other body processes. This extra energy gets stored as fat.
Being overweight and obese are significant health issues for children. If you help children deal with these issues during childhood, they’re less likely to have problems with overweight and obesity later in life.
Factors that influence healthy weight, overweight and obesity
Many factors can put children at a higher risk of becoming overweight and obese. These factors include:
- regular unhealthy food and drink choices
- lack of physical activity
- family role models
- family history and medical factors
- other factors like screen time and sleep patterns.
You can help your child maintain a healthy weight by looking at these factors in your family’s lifestyle.
Food and drink choices
If you offer your child a range of healthy nutritious food, it will help your child grow and develop in a healthy way. Your child will also be less likely to gain too much body fat.
Healthy nutritious foods include vegetables, fruits, grains, reduced-fat dairy and protein-rich foods like lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, peas, beans and lentils. For healthy development, your child needs to eat different amounts of these foods at different ages:
- 2-3 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
- 4-8 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
- 9-11 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
- 12-13 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
- 14-18 years: illustrated dietary guidelines.
Tap water and reduced-fat milk are the healthiest drinks for children.
Physical activity can help your child maintain a healthy weight. It also:
- uses up your child’s excess energy
- decreases your child’s stress
- prevents disease
- improves your child’s sleep
- boosts your child’s confidence
- gives your child the chance to socialise with other children.
You canencourage your child to be physically active by walking when possible, playing outdoors and sending positive messages about physical activity.
Family role models
Modelling healthy eating and regular exercise can have a big influence on your child. Your child is more likely to make healthy food choices and be active if they see you eating healthily and being active.
Family history and medical factors
Everyone comes in different shapes and sizes, partly because of lifestyle, but also because of genes. Some children are at greater risk of becoming overweight or obese because of genes that make them gain weight more easily, or because they have health problems or take certain medications.
If your child has any of these risk factors, it’s even more important for your family to make healthy food and lifestyle choices.
Screen time, family lifestyles, access to outdoor space – all these things can affect children’s eating habits and the amount of physical activity they do. There are ways to overcome these obstacles, including the obstacles to physical activity.
Another risk factor for childhood obesity is sleep problems. Children who don’t get enough sleep at night are more likely to become overweight or obese. Promoting good sleep for children is an important part of helping them to develop healthy habits.
Getting your child into healthy fresh food and physical activity early in life can help reduce your child’s risk of overweight issues or obesity in the future.
Why your child needs to maintain a healthy weight
Maintaining a healthy weight is important to your child’s health now and in the future. A healthy weight now reduces your child’s chances of:
- being overweight or obese as an adult
- developing serious health disorders during childhood, including type-2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnoea and hip and joint problems
- suffering from emotional and social problems like teasing and bullying, low self-esteem, depression, poor body image and eating disorders
- suffering physical health problems in adulthood, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some types of cancer, infertility and skin disorders.
When overweight problems and childhood obesity are picked up early, it gives children a better chance of avoiding long-term weight and health problems.
Worried about weight or childhood obesity: what to do
If you’re worried that your child might be above a healthy weight, it’s important to start with a proper assessment.
A GP, paediatrician or dietitian can look at your child’s growth and work out whether they have a healthy weight. The health professional will compare your child’s height and weight to standard growth charts to check that your child is growing well.
If your child is overweight, you can make many small and realistic lifestyle changes to help your child. If you involve the whole family in these changes, it’s easier for your child to stick with the changes – and it’s good for everyone.
Here are simple changes you can make to everyday family eating:
- Set a good example, and show your child that you enjoy healthy eating yourself.
- Involve your child in choosing and preparing healthy foods for meals. This helps children learn about healthy foods and making good choices. Children are also more likely to eat something they’ve helped to make.
- Eat more vegetables and salad. Aim to fill half the plate at main meals with salad or vegetables.
- Save ‘sometimes’ foods and drinks for special occasions. This includes fast food, potato chips, biscuits, cakes, lollies, flavoured milks and soft drinks. And if you don’t have ‘sometimes’ foods in your home, it’s easier for your child to avoid eating them.
- Establish regular family meals, including breakfast where possible. Sit down to enjoy meals together as a family with the TV switched off.
- Have healthy snacks handy for when you know your child will be hungry. For example, keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the bench and a container of chopped fresh vegies in the fridge.
Here are simple changes you can make to get more physical activity into your family’s life:
- Make sure that your child balances screen time with activities that get your child moving. You can also combine screen use with physical activity.
- Give your child the chance for active play. Your child needs at least one hour of physical activity, which can be spread throughout the day. Physical activity during the school day usually isn’t enough.
- Build activity into everyday family life – for example, go for family walks or bike rides together.
- Walk to and from school, the local shops or friends’ places if possible.
Everyone who is above their healthiest weight needs support to manage their weight. Your child can’t do it without you. If the whole family makes healthy food choices and gets active, it’s easier for your child to keep going with healthy lifestyle changes.
Talking about healthy weight and childhood obesity
Childhood obesity is a sensitive issue.
If your child is above their healthiest weight, it’s best not to label your child as overweight or obese. Instead you can talk about what your family needs to do to help your child get to a healthy weight.
Here are tips for talking with your child about overweight and obesity:
- Focus on health and healthy lifestyle rather than weight loss.
- Try to use terms like ‘above a healthy weight’ rather than labels like ‘fat’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘chubby’ or ‘obese’. For younger children, try to avoid talking to them about their weight.
- Praise and encourage qualities that aren’t about the way your child looks. For example, ‘I like the way you handled that big school assignment’, ‘I feel proud when you look after the younger kids so well’ and ‘It’s great that you were calm before your talk’.
- Try to avoid saying things like ‘Don’t you think you should …’ or ‘You shouldn’t be having that’. Children might feel you’re nagging and could be less likely to do what you want.
The following professionals can help you with your child’s eating, activity habits or weight:
You can find local health professionals and your local community health centre by using the National Health Services Directory.