Childhood obesity is all too common in the United States, with a high prevalence among children and adolescents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity is 18.5 percent, affecting about 13.7 million children and adolescents.
Allison Lesmann, DNP, APRN, FNP-C, a certified nurse practitioner specializing in children’s health with Trinity Health, noted how the numbers have grown over the years, based on the observation she sees daily in her practice.
In 2016, while performing a random chart audit as part of a doctoral project, Lesmann noted that 12.7 percent of pediatric patients were overweight and 18.5 percent were obese.
Most pediatric patients – 68.8 percent – were at a healthy weight.
While pediatricians can’t officially diagnose children as being overweight or obese until they are two years of age, Lesmann noted that healthy habits are something instilled with parents almost immediately.
“The importance is identifying it early. From the time kids are newborns coming into my clinic, I start talking about healthy habits,” she said. “I tell parents, ‘My goal is for your child to live past 100. Let’s work together as partners to try and make your child as healthy as possible.’”
Being overweight or obese is diagnosed based on the Body Mass Index on the growth chart, Lesmann said. A child is defined as obese if their body mass index-for-age percentile is greater than 95 percent; overweight is considered anywhere in the greater than 85 to less than 95 percent range. (There is also an underweight category, where the BMI is below the 5th percentile.)
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and are more likely to develop noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, at an earlier age.
Those diseases can include heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, and cancer. In addition, children who are affected by obesity face social discrimination, leading to low self-esteem and depression.
Being overweight or obese, as well as their related diseases, are largely preventable, WHO pointed out. There are certain factors targeted as major contributors to childhood obesity, including environment, lack of physical activity, heredity and family, dietary patterns, and socioeconomic status.
“I don’t think the isolation with COVID-19 has helped,” Lesmann said, noting how the pandemic has affected and otherwise limited children’s activity, especially during the summertime.
Parents can help their children from being overweight or obese by “being conscious of the things they are bringing into the home,” such as snacks and sugary beverages, as well as “trying to promote eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water,” Lesmann said.
Parents can also do this by setting an example. “While encouraging children to be more physically active, parents should participate with them,” Lesmann said. “Make it a family activity, like going for a walk or a bike ride. I think that’s always more effective.”
Trinity Health has a team of pediatricians who provide medical care to infants, children, and adolescents from birth to age 18.