About overweight and obesity
Overweight and obesity are terms you might hear when children are above their healthiest weight. Obesity is a more serious form of overweight.
Overweight and obesity can happen for many reasons, including energy imbalance. This is 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.
Why healthy weight is important for children
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for your child’s health now and in the future. A healthy weight now reduces your child’s chances of:
- being above a healthy weight as an adult
- developing serious health disorders during childhood, including type-2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnoea and hip and joint problems
- experiencing emotional and social issues like teasing and bullying, low self-esteem, depression, poor body image and eating disorders
- experiencing physical health problems in adulthood, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some types of cancer, infertility and skin disorders.
Lifestyle factors that influence weight, overweight and obesity: what you can do
Many lifestyle factors can influence weight, overweight and obesity in children. These factors include:
- food and drink choices
- physical activity
- family role models
- screen time and digital technology use
- sleep patterns.
You can work on these factors in your family’s lifestyle to help your child maintain a healthy weight.
Food and drink choices
If you offer your child a range of healthy and 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.
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 can also:
- use up your child’s excess energy
- reduce your child’s stress
- prevent disease
- improve your child’s sleep
- boost your child’s confidence and mental health
- give your child the chance to socialise with other children.
You can encourage your child to be physically active just by walking to places like the shops or school. Being and playing outdoors can also help. You can look for local outdoor areas to be physically active, like parks, sports fields or beaches.
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.
Screen time and digital technology use
Screen time and digital technology use can affect children’s eating habits and the amount of physical activity they do. For healthy development, including healthy weight gain, it’s best for your child to balance screen time with other activities, as these articles explain:
- Healthy screen time and digital technology use: checklist
- Screen time and digital technology use for children 2-5 years: tips for balance
- Screen time and digital technology use for children 6-11 years: tips for balance.
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 conditions or take certain medicines. You usually can't change these factors. If your child has any of these risk factors, it’s even more important for your family to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Worried about children’s weight: 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’re within a healthy weight range. 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 above a healthy weight, 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 to help you make healthier food and eating choices in your family:
- Choose healthy food for yourself, and show your child that you enjoy healthy eating.
- Choose and prepare healthy meals with your child. 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.
- 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 vegetables in the fridge.
- 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.
Here are simple changes you can make to get more physical activity into your family’s life:
- Manage screen time and digital technology use and encourage your child to use screen time and digital technology for 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.
If the whole family makes healthy food choices and gets active, it’s easier for your child to keep going with healthy lifestyle changes. Your child can’t do it without you.
Talking about weight and healthy lifestyles
Talking about weight 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 positive lifestyle changes your family can make to help your child get to a healthy weight.
Here are tips for talking with your child about healthy lifestyles:
- Try not to focus on weight, shape, size or weight loss, especially for younger children.
- Try to use terms like ‘above a healthy weight’ rather than labels like ‘fat’, ‘chubby’ or ‘obese’.
- 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 might resist healthy lifestyle changes.
Getting help with overweight and obesity in children
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.
Being above a healthy weight is a significant health risk for children. When weight-related issues are picked up early, it gives children a better chance of avoiding long-term weight and health issues.