In Australia, almost one quarter of children between two and 12 years old are overweight or obese.
Children need a healthy, balanced diet that gives them enough energy to grow and develop. However, they can become overweight or obese if they regularly eat and drink more energy (calories) than their body uses, or if they don’t do enough physical activity. This energy is then stored as fat.
Obese children usually become obese adults, and they’re more likely to develop serious health problems in the future. Sometimes early damage can be done and the problems may develop while they’re still a child.
Overweight or obese children are more likely to develop the following health problems as they get older and into their adult years:
Obesity can also affect your child’s emotional and mental health. They may have low confidence or self-esteem, and develop more serious issues such as eating problems and depression.
There are a number of different things that can cause overweight and obesity in children, including:
If you’re obese, then your children are more likely to be obese. This may happen because you share the same eating or activity habits, or a combination of both.
For adults, a measurement called body mass index (BMI) is used to work out whether you’re the right weight for your height. However, because children are growing, their height, weight and body fat can change a lot. BMI measurements are also very different between boys and girls. This means that the standard BMI can’t be used to measure children.
Special charts, called centile charts, have been developed to show whether children are an appropriate weight for their age. Your GP, paediatrician or early childhood nurse will use these charts to assess your child. Children who weigh more than 85 percent of their peers for their age and height are classified as overweight. Those who weigh more than 95 percent of their peers for their age and height are classified as obese.
Your child will also be checked for other health conditions related to being overweight. Both you and your child may be asked about the foods you eat and how active you are.
There are a number of different ways to manage overweight and obesity in children. However, no approach will work on its own. You will most likely need to make changes to the diet and activity level of you and your child, as well as changing some of the behaviours of the whole family.
Your GP may recommend you help maintain your child’s weight rather than lose it. This means that as they grow taller, their BMI should improve.
It’s important to make changes that involve the whole family, rather than asking your child to have a separate diet. This may mean changes to mealtimes and snacking habits, or starting activities that the whole family can do together. Lifestyle changes work best for your child when they are long-term, permanent changes.
Some lifestyle and behaviour changes are listed below:
A medicine called orlistat can sometimes be used to help adults lose weight. However, it’s not known if orlistat is safe to use in children.
Operations are available that can help older children to lose excess weight. Surgery will only be suggested if:
Weight-loss surgery for children is rare.
Your doctor will discuss your child’s treatment choices with you.
Childhood obesity is caused by many different things, some of which are difficult to change. For example, there’s a greater choice of food available for those in the developed world, and computers and television play a bigger part in many people’s lives than they did in the past. However, you can make a difference to the food your child eats every day and how active they are.
If you're worried that your child is becoming overweight, you can make long-term changes to your child's diet and eating habits, while increasing their amount of activity.
Nutrition Australia recommends children and adolescents should be encouraged to:
Never put your child on a weight-loss diet without getting advice, as this can affect his or her growth. Talk to your GP or a dietitian if you're concerned about your child's weight.
A Healthy and Active Australia
Get Set 4 Life
Raising Children Network
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Last published: 30 July 2011
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