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Is your child headed towards obesity?

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Jan 5, 2016


Childhood obesity has become an epidemic in the United States.  Find out how to determine if your child is overweight/obese in this article Dr. David Samadi and I wrote together and what are some factors driving this trend.  For more health and medical information, go to

In the past, childhood obesity was a rare occurrence. Back in 1980, 7% of children aged 6-11 in the United States were obese and 5% of adolescents aged 12-19 fell into that weight category. Today, the prevalence of childhood obesity has dramatically risen affecting about 17% or 12.7 million children and adolescents in the United States.

“I think many people still don’t take the obesity epidemic seriously, which is a huge problem,” said Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology and chief or robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “This puts our communities at risk of losing many of the strides we’ve made in healthcare such as with heart disease, diabetes, or other diseases associated with obesity.”

Dr. Samadi went on to include, “Possible triggers for the obesity epidemic include an increased availability of a variety of palatable and affordable foods, decreased physical demands of many jobs, an increase in the use of television, computers and smart phones, “nutritional programming” aka overweight and obese mothers who may be increasing their unborn child’s risk of obesity, changes in sleep patterns and stress, or possibly changes in the bacteria in the digestive tract.”

As a parent, would you recognize if your child was heading down the path towards obesity or have they already reached that status?

Defining the difference between overweight and obesity

Determining if a child or teen is overweight or obese is different from this determination in adults.

In adults, overweight is defined as having a body weight that is above a healthy weight or where a person has a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9.

Obesity in adults is defined as having excess body weight or overfatness often with adverse health effects or where the person has a BMI of 30 or higher.

In both cases of overweight and obesity and the BMI, this should also be based on good medical judgement for each individual person.

For children and teens, BMI is based on age- and sex-specific percentiles for BMI rather than the BMI categories for adults. This is because children’s body composition varies as they age and varies between boys and girls. This is why BMI levels among children and teens is expressed relative to other children of the same age and sex.

Either way, carrying more weight than what is ideal may increase a child or adolescents risk for serious medical problems now or in the future:

• Pre-diabetes and diabetes

• High blood pressure (hypertension)

• Hyperlipidemia – having too much cholesterol in the blood, clogging arteries

• Sleep apnea

• Early puberty

• Psychological issues such as poor self-esteem and depression

How to determine if your child is overweight or obese

The best way to know if your child weighs more than they should and possibly harming their health, is to take them to their doctor. There are a few measurements to determine this. The more methods a doctor decides to use, the better the accuracy of determining if a child is overweight or obese.

One method is to compare their weight to their height plotting it on a growth chart. Another method is skinfold thickness which measures the triceps (back of the upper arm) with a caliper that pinches the skin and fat together. This needs to be done by someone who is qualified, well-trained and who frequently does this measurement.

The best and most often used method though, is body mass index or BMI. BMI is a weight to height ratio and is an estimated measure of body density or how proportionate their weight is to their height. It is mainly used to screen for weight categories. There are body mass index charts for children to adolescents indicating whether they are underweight, normal, overweight or obese. Depending on what percentile your child falls into based on their age and BMI determines their weight category:

• They are obese if they have a BMI at the 95th percentile or greater for their age.

• They are overweight if they have a BMI between the 85th to less than the 95th percentile for their age.

• They have a healthy weight or BMI if it is between the 5th percentile to less than the 85th percentile for their age.

• They are underweight if they have a BMI less than the 5th percentile for their age.

If a child or adolescents BMI falls above the 95th percentile, this may be an indicator of possible risk to their health because of a higher body weight for their height and age.

Depending on what percentile your child falls into on a BMI growth chart will determine if intervention is necessary.

Other signs to look for to tell if your child is headed towards obesity are the following:

Lack of physical activity – Children need at least one hour each day of physical activity. If they are getting less than this, it can set them up for gaining weight. Keep track of how much time they spend being sedentary – watching TV, playing video games, being on the computer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of screen time.

Uses food for comfort – Does your child soothe themselves with food when they experience stress, boredom, anxiety or sadness? This can lead to weight gain and a lifelong unhealthy relationship with food.

Dr. Samadi added, “Americans have a strong desire for fat and sugar. The American food industry has significantly contributed to providing this for us. Americans currently get about 35 percent of their calories from fat.”

Does not get a good night’s sleep – Sleep disturbances, whether due to irregular bedtimes or trouble falling and staying asleep, can promote weight gain. When children or even adults, are sleep deprived, their metabolism can be affected. There’s a tendency to eat more when feeling sleepy plus the production of the “stop” hormone leptin, which tells you when to stop eating, is reduced. To make things worse, the “go” hormone ghrelin, which tells you when to eat, is increased. Children ages 3-12 need 10 – 12 hours of sleep while ages 12-18 need 8-9 hours a night.

Noticing and acknowledging your child may be at an unhealthy weight is a step in the right direction. The earlier professional intervention can occur, the greater the chance a child can be helped to grow into a healthy weight for them. And that is the ultimate goal to keep in mind – it’s not about a perfect body shape but about having your child be active, engaged and healthy so they will become the same as an adult.

Click HERE to learn more on how to stay active while watching TV

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.
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