Childhood Obesity, Nutrition & Physical Activity

We’ve all heard about the obesity epidemic afflicting children in the United States. About 1 in every 6 children is seriously overweight in this country. The danger of this epidemic is real—children who are overweight or obese are at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar, which can lead to heart disease, liver disease and type-2 diabetes, among many other problems. Is there anything we can do to help?

> Read the “Keep Your Children Healthy” Fact Sheet in English
> Read the “¡Mantenga la SALUD de su niño!” Fact Sheet in Spanish
> Listen to a Parenting Today Radio Show: Nutrition, Obesity and Children (mp3)

The good news is that parents are in a great position to help their children avoid—or beat—this epidemic.

What is Obesity?
Obesity is defined as being extremely overweight. It is medically determined by calculating your body mass index (BMI) which compares your body weight to others of the same height and age to determine if you’re at a healthy weight. It’s important to keep in mind that a child who is overweight, but not diagnosed as “obese,” could still be faced with many of the same health issues we’ll discuss today.

What effects does being overweight have on children?
Children who are overweight can have a number of challenges to overcome.

  • The physical impacts of obesity are what we hear about most often in the news. These can include the issues we mentioned earlier such as heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, liver disease, and type-2 diabetes. In general, they may have trouble participating in simple activities such as playing outside or taking a walk, which can lead to a wide variety of other physical problems.
  • The fact is that the physical ailments—though the most urgent to manage—are just the beginning of what an overweight child has to face. Children dealing with obesity often deal with emotional issues, ranging from low self-esteem to general frustration to depression. Children often have to endure teasing from other children, embarrassment about their weight or physical appearance and feelings of helplessness if they don’t think they can do anything about it.

Why is obesity so prevalent in children?
It can be easy to neglect a child’s nutrition and exercise habits with the hectic schedules of today’s families, but making time for balanced meals and active play (as opposed to sitting in front of the television, computer or video games) are key to the prevention of obesity. Causes of obesity include:

  • Introducing cereal and solid foods too early
  • Incorrectly judging that breast milk and/or formula will not satisfy your infant’s hunger
  • Allowing consumption of too much fruit juice as opposed to milk and water
  • Lack of exercise and activity
  • Eating out too often
  • Not recognizing a child as being overweight

What can parents do to prevent obesity in their children?
According to the World Health Organization, obesity is one of the top 10 most preventable health risks. That’s great news for parents who can take an active role in their child’s exercise and nutritional habits. Where can a parent start?

> Infants
The number one thing you can do for your baby is to breastfeed her for as long as possible as opposed to using formula. As you begin to offer solid foods, start out on the right foot! Offer a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, and whole grain low-sugar cereal. If your baby rejects a particular food, don’t give up! Many times a child has to be offered a food more than 10 times before she actually tries something.

It’s also important that you feed your baby in a highchair at the table whenever possible, rather than in front of the television or on the go. Kids and adults alike tend to eat more when they’re distracted by something like the TV.

> Toddlers
The biggest nutritional hazard for toddlers is juice, period. Even 100% fruit juice has its drawbacks; it might have a lot of vitamins and minerals in it, but it also has tons of sugar and calories. Limit toddlers to 4-6 ounces a day, preferable diluted with water and never given in the evening.

> Preschoolers and beyond
When a child reaches 3, it’s time to be more aware of his weight gain and talk to your doctor if you have concerns. Children will begin to make their own choices about food, so steer them in the right direction by promoting the 9-5-2-1-0 for Health message, which stands for 9 hours of sleep, 5 fruits and vegetables, no more than 2 hours of screen time( other than homework time), 1 hour of physical activity and 0 sugary drinks. This message was developed by the Northern Virginia Health Kids Coalition, initiated and sponsored by the Inova Health System after Inova conducted a survey that concluded that over 100,000 youth in Northern Va are either overweight or obese. More information on the 9-5-2-1-0 for Health message is available at

Other ideas are:

  • Like so many other parenting challenges, one of the best ways to teach your child healthy eating habits is by being a role model. Sit down TOGETHER for meals and eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with your child. Even infants who are only eating baby food will begin to learn what is “normal” by watching what you eat on your plate.
  • Implement a healthy eating plan at home for the whole family so that children get the proper nutrients they need. Try using the Food Pyramid provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Many kids say that they simply eat whatever is in the house, so don’t buy high calorie snack foods and other junk food. By not bringing it into your home, it won’t even be an option when your child is hungry. This goes for soda, too! A 2001 study found that each daily serving of soda raised their risk of obesity by 60%.
  • Schedule meal times, so your children can get accustomed to eating at specific times rather than snacking all day long.
  • Encourage more active play time and less time in front of the television. If possible, walk or bike places instead of walking.
  • Encourage your child to participate in extracurricular activities. Sports are not the only option! Music, creative arts or the performing arts still keep your child active. Let them find an activity they really enjoy so they stick with it.
  • Don’t use candy or sweets as rewards for good behavior.
  • Don’t over-control what your child eats, either. The goal is to model and encourage healthy behavior that your child can maintain as they grow. Don’t pull the entire family into controlling what your child eats—you want to keep the atmosphere healthy and relaxing.

Obesity, general weight and nutrition problems in children can cause serious health issues that continue throughout adulthood. It is important for parents to be aware of their child’s nutritional food intake and the amount of exercise they are getting in order to help them develop healthy lifestyle habits.

If you are concerned about your child being overweight consult a doctor. They can help you use charts according to their age to track their weight and growth, as well as develop a plan to help them lose weight in healthy ways.

If your child does need to lose weight, keep the focus on how great good food and exercise will make them feel. Avoid talking about dieting, willpower and weight loss. Instead, lead by example. Eat and exercise with your child, and teach them how healthy foods, water and physical activity will support their bodies and give them much more energy.

Do not nag, scold, criticize or make jokes about your child’s weight problems. You could raise their anxiety level and make the problem worse. Instead use positive reinforcement and always be a healthy role model.

And remember, all aspects of parenting can be tough, but finding help doesn’t have to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! For more information about childhood obesity, nutrition and physical activity, visit the SCAN website at or learn more at