Childhood Obesity: A Practical Guide for Parents

Childhood Obesity: A Practical Approach for Parents

Childhood Obesity rates are on the rise in the United States with a rapid increase in obesity rates since the 1960s. Childhood obesity currently affects approximately 12.5 million children and teens according to CDC figures (1). Obesity affects children in a number of ways including psychosocial problems and increased risk of cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and metabolic problems including diabetes. So, what can be done? Although there is no magic bullet, I do believe there are certain things that can be done easily by parents to improve the health of their children.

Recognize when your child is obese:

The first step to battle obesity is to recognize who is at risk. In a recent study of parents that targeted their ability to recognize whether their children were overweight or obese, 63% of parents considered their overweight children as normal weight and 63% considered their obese children as overweight indicating that parents tend to underestimate the weight of their children (2). The best way to determine if your child is overweight or obese is to ask your child’s physician to calculate their BMI or body mass index and compare it to a standard age appropriate growth chart. Children are classified as overweight if their BMI is between the 85th and 95th percentile and obese if BMI is greater than the 95th percentile. If your child falls into one of these two categories, action needs to be taken.

Increase energy expenditure:
Keep it simple. To maintain weight, energy in must equal energy out. To gain weight, energy in must be greater than energy out and to lose weight, energy in must be less than energy out. To look at it another way, energy out must be greater than energy in. By increasing your child’s daily energy expenditure you can help to increase weight loss and help prevent other illnesses associated with obesity. By exercising for 60 minutes per day, you can improve cardiovascular health, improve insulin sensitivity, and help your child lose weight. Try to find something that your child will enjoy doing. Whether it is soccer, baseball, walking, running, riding their bicycle, or swimming, any type of exercise that raises the heart rate will be beneficial. Make the exercise a family activity as well. If you’re excited about it, your child is more likely to be excited as well. Also, try to limit screen time (time in front of the television/computer/video games) to no more than 2 hours per day. These activities encourage snacking and don’t do anything to burn calories or improve health.

Decrease energy intake:
Our typical American diet is high in fat, cholesterol and simple sugars. Try this simple experiment, for two days, keep a food diary for yourself and your children. Write down everything that you and your children eat or drink including snacks and keep track of the calories consumed. You’ll be surprised to find out just how many calories your children and family are eating per day. One of the easiest ways to decrease caloric intake is to stop drinking sodas and juices. Encourage your children to drink at least 2 liters of water per day. Use sugar free water flavorers if your child doesn’t care for water. I have seen dramatic changes in insulin sensitivity and weight loss just by stopping all soda and juice intake. It is a simple but effective step.

Sleep, sleep, sleep:
For optimal health, the average child needs anywhere from 8-10 hours of sleep per day. Sleep has many benefits. During sleep, growth hormone levels peak which primes the body for growth and improves insulin sensitivity as well. Sleep also helps repair the body and lowers stress hormone levels including cortisol which is a major player in fat deposition. Furthermore, during sleep, your body enters a catabolic stage in which your body uses energy reserves from fat to fuel metabolism since you are not feeding it with food during the sleeping hours. By avoiding bedtime snacks, you can further increase the bodies natural tendencies to burn fat while sleeping. Who thought burning calories could be so easy! In addition, if your child is going to bed earlier to achieve the 10hrs of sleep, they are less likely to be up later playing video games and snacking.

Vitamins: Should your child take them?
Most children and adults are deficient in multiple vitamins and minerals due to our diets. From birth, infants’ diets are deficient in Vitamin D and if breastfed, iron as well. As soon, as infants begin to eat table foods, they become further deficient in other vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin C and Zinc. As they grow older and assume more of a typical American diet, these deficiencies increase and expand to include even more nutrients. So what’s the big deal. Vitamins and minerals are important cofactors in many natural chemical or metabolic reactions that occur within the human body. Vitamin K helps in reactions that prevent/control bleeding. Vitamin E is necessary for red blood cell function and serves as a natural antioxidant along with Vitamin C. Zinc is important in hormone production including testosterone. These are just a few examples. As deficiencies build up, your child’s ability to fight viral infections, combat stress, and respond appropriately to insulin and burn fat is diminished. Children should take at least one to two multivitamins daily to help with these natural processes. Even better, each meal should include a serving of a raw vegetable or fruit for even better absorption and utilization of these necessary vitamins and minerals. Try it a try, you and your children will feel better and have more energy.

Childhood obesity is a national epidemic that we in the medical community are just now beginning to fight aggressively. We can’t do it alone, however. We need parents to help. By making some simple changes in diet and lifestyle, your children will be more healthy and their futures will be much more enjoyable.

Until next time,
Brian Thompson, MD

(1) Bell, J. et al. “CDC Grand Rounds: Childhood Obesity in the United States” January 21, 2011/ 60(02); 42-46. Accessed via web at:

(2) He, Meizi, MD PhD. “Are parents aware that their children are overweight or obese? Do they care?” Canadian Family Physician. September 2001 vol. 53 no. 9 1493-1499.