About childhood obesity
Overweight and childhood obesity are terms you might hear when children are above their healthiest weight and have too much body fat or an abnormal amount of body fat. This is a health risk for children.
Obesity happens when the energy children get from food and drinks is greater than the energy they burn up through physical activity, growing and other body processes. This extra energy gets stored as fat.
Some children are also at greater risk of obesity because of genetic factors that make their bodies gain weight more easily.
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:
- unhealthy food and drink choices
- unhealthy family habits
- lack of physical activity
- family genetic history
- other environmental factors.
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, meat, fish, chicken, eggs and legumes like 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 milk are the healthiest drinks for children.
You can encourage your child to be physically active by walking when possible and playing outdoors. Physical activity will:
- balance your child’s energy intake
- control your child’s appetite
- decrease your child’s stress
- prevent disease
- increase social interactions.
All these things are part of an overall healthy lifestyle for your child.
Your child is more likely to make healthy food choices and be active if she sees you eating healthily and being active. Young children do as you do, so modelling healthy eating and regular exercise can have a big impact.
Family genetic history and other factors
Everyone comes in different shapes and sizes, partly because of lifestyle, but also because of genes. Some children are at greater risk of obesity because of their genes, or because they have health problems or take certain medication. 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, busy family lifestyles, lack of outdoor space – all these things can make it easy for children to overeat and harder for them to be active. It can be tough, but there are ways to overcome 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.
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.
Worried about weight or childhood obesity: what to do
If you’re worried that your child might have a weight problem or even childhood obesity, 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 he has a healthy weight. The health professional might look at your child’s height, weight and body mass index (BMI). BMI is one way of adding up total body fat and working out whether your child’s weight is within a healthy range.
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 children in choosing and preparing healthy foods for meals. This helps them learn about healthy foods and making good choices. They’re 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.
- Keep ‘sometimes’ foods and drinks out of the house. This includes fast food, potato chips, biscuits, cakes, lollies, flavoured milks and soft drinks. If you don’t have them at home, it’s harder for your child to eat them.
- Establish regular family meals, including breakfast, and sit down to enjoy meals together as a family – with the TV switched off as often as you can.
- 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:
- Try to limit screen time. Screen time includes TV, DVDs, computers, video games, mobiles phones and tablets.
- Give your child the chance for active play. Your child needs at least one hour a day of physical activity. 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.
Talking about healthy weight and childhood obesity
Childhood obesity is a sensitive issue.
If your child does have an overweight problem, it’s better not to label her 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. It can be hard for children to lose weight.
- Try to use terms like ‘above average weight’ or ‘above a healthy weight’ rather than labels like ‘fat’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘chunky’ 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 could be less likely to do what you want.
The following professionals can help you with your child’s eating, activity habits or weight: