Impact of Childhood Obesity in America

Child on tricycle

Obesity can be defined as an excess of body fat. There is no consensus on a cut-off point for excess fat, or obesity in children and adolescents [5]. In a study conducted in 1992 [5], researches classified children aged 5-18 as fat if their percentage of body fat was at least 25% for males, and 30% for females.

The Center for Disease Control [3] defines overweight as being at or above the 95% of BMI for age whereas the Europeans classify overweight as being at 85% above age weight and obesity at 95% or above [5].

Understanding the Impact of Child Obesity

While childhood obesity is beginning to decline in some regions of the country, it is still on the rise. Between 2009-2010, children and teens aged 2-19 were still showing 16.9% obesity rates, which was zero change from 2007-2008 [1]. In 2010, 42 million children under the age of 5 are considered overweight and the number of overweight children in America over the past 3 decades has doubles [2, 5]. Close to 35 million of overweight children are living in developing countries, showing that obesity does not divide among socioeconomic or cultural divides.

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There are various reasons and theories to childhood obesity. One is the higher intake of sugar, both in foods and beverages. It has been associated with increased BMI [1]. From 1989-2008 there was a significant rise in consumption of sugary beverages, from 130 calories to 212 calories per day in children 6-11 years of age [1].

Factors That Influence Obesity

Behaviors can also influence obesity in children. With the boom of technology, children and teens are spending more and more time in front of TV, tablet, and computer screens. With the rapid introduction of electronic education, young students are moving less, and sitting more. Sedentary activities are more prevalent and are reducing the amount of physical activity children are getting on a daily basis [4].

In contrast eating a healthy diet and being physically active can help children balance nutrition, activity and weight. A healthy diet consists of a variety of vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and dairy. The CDC recommends limiting foods and beverages high in sugar, fats, and sodium to promote optimal health [4]. They also recommend for children 6 years and older at least 60 minutes of exercise and/or play a day.

Other factors that can contribute to childhood obesity is parental obesity. Children of obese parents are more likely to be overweight as well [3]. There is a genetic component to childhood obesity that makes it easier for some children to become overweight than others.

Diabetes during pregnancy and excessive weight gain during pregnancy can also increase childhood obesity [3]. Type 2 diabetes are typically more common to develop if the mother struggles with diabetes during pregnancy. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy can lead to an increased birth weight and has been clinically linked to being overweight later in life [3].

Low birth weight, under 2500g, has been shown as a risk factor for overweight children in various studies [3]. Parental eating and physical habits are also an indicator of childhood obesity. Children model parental behaviors, as well as if parents have poor nutritional needs they will influence their children to do the same [3].

Comorbidities With Obesity

Childhood toyThe Impact of Childhood Obesity in American can lead to numerous comorbidities that are associated with being overweight or obese.Elevated blood pressure, dyslipidemia, higher rates of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are all common issues that can develop [2]. Childhood obesity, especially in adolescence is a key predictor for obesity in adulthood.

Morbidity and mortality in the adult obese population increases if the individual was overweight as a teen, regardless of whether they lose weight as an adult or not [2]. Childhood obesity can also impact a child’s social and emotional health, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

Obesity has been also associated with poor academic performance and lower quality of life as experienced by the child [5]. A research study found that overweight children were 4 times more likely to report having problems at school than their normal weight peers [5]. There were more apt to also miss school frequently.

Medically childhood obesity can be linked to fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, diabetes, asthma, high cholesterol, skin conditions, impaired balance, and orthopedic problems. Previously these concerns were only seen in overweight adults, but more recently are becoming common among obese children and adolescents [5].

Typically overweight adults are more likely to develop non-communicable disease like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. Environmental causes, such as lifestyle, culture, and being active or not play a pivotal role in increasing obesity [5].

Child playing with a toySocially, children who are obese are being affected both socially and emotionally. They tend to face challenges such as bullying, teasing, and discrimination. Discrimination against obese children has been found in those as young as 2 [5].  For a child who may also have other risk factors that increase susceptibility to an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, these experiences can be triggering.

Obese children and teens are often excluded from physical activities or sports and are seen to be unable to play in activities [5]. These societal concerns can lead to low-self-esteem and confidence and push children to retreat to their home or safe place and/or comfort and self soothe with food [5].

In conclusion, the Impact of Childhood Obesity in America has profound medical, emotional, and mental effects on our American youth. Working to educate parents, schools, and communities on healthy lifestyles can help prevent obesity and practice self-acceptance for all body shapes and sizes.

Community Discussion – Share Your Thoughts Here!

Does your child struggle with childhood obesity? If so what impact do you notice this has on your child? What strategies are you taking to help improve those impacts?

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS is a specialist in the eating disorder field. Libby has been treating eating disorders for 10 years within the St. Louis area, and enjoys working with individuals of all ages.


[1]: Grouw, J., Volpe, S., 2013. Childhood obesity in America. Current Opinion Endocrinal Diabetes Obesity
[2]: Deckelbaum, R., Williams, C. 2001. Childhood Obesity: The Health Issue. Obesity Research
[5]: Sahoo, K., Sahoo, B., Choudhury, A., et al. 2015. Childhood Obesity: Causes and Consequences. Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 1, 2017.
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