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Childhood Obesity in Australia

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.

Complications of children being overweight or obese 

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:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Asthma
  • Flat feet
  • Liver disease
  • Sleep apnoea.

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.

Causes of children being overweight or obese 

There are a number of different things that can cause overweight and obesity in children, including:

  • a poor diet, for example too many high-fat and sugary foods
  • inactivity, for example not doing enough exercise and spending too much time watching television or in front of a computer or other electronic device
  • genetic (inherited) conditions, though these are rare
  • not being breastfed.

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.

Diagnosing childhood obesity 

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.

Treatment of being overweight and obesity in children 

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.

Self-help

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:

  • Setting goals and giving rewards and praise. You and your child can aim to make long-term changes to the foods you eat and the activities you do. This will help your child manage their weight as they become an adult. However, choosing some short-term goals may help you to focus and succeed. Give your child praise and rewards for their success, but make sure these aren’t food-related. Instead try giving them a small gift or do an activity they enjoy.
  • Get active. Children should aim for at least 60 minutes of daily activity. This can be one session of activity or a number of sessions of 10 minutes or more. Try building activity into everyday life, such as walking or cycling to school or playing with other children. Do activities together as a family, for example, going to the park and playing football. Help your child to choose more structured activities that they enjoy, such as dancing or swimming.
  • Cut down on inactive pastimes. Reduce the amount of time your child spends watching television or using a computer. Try to limit this to less than two hours a day or 14 hours a week.
  • Eat healthily. Your doctor or nurse may ask you to keep a record of the food and drink that you and your child have. Based on your child’s likes and dislikes and age, your doctor or dietitian may create a healthy eating plan. This can be made up of healthy foods which give your child less energy than they’re using in their daily activities. This is likely to mean eating more fruit, vegetables and low-fat foods, and cutting down on foods that contain a lot of sugar.
  • Involve the whole family. Try to get everyone to eat healthily and become more active so that your child doesn’t feel they’ve been singled out. If you’re overweight, try to lose weight with your child. Look at how you eat as a family. Sit down together for meals and set a good example with the foods you eat and the activities you do.

Medicines

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.

Surgery

Operations are available that can help older children to lose excess weight. Surgery will only be suggested if:

  • other treatments haven’t worked
  • your child has been through puberty
  • they are very obese
  • they have other health problems.

Weight-loss surgery for children is rare.

Your doctor will discuss your child’s treatment choices with you.

Prevention of childhood obesity 

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:

  • eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits
  • eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably wholegrain
  • include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives in their diet
  • include milks, yoghurts, cheese and/or alternatives in their diet - use of reduced-fat milk should be encouraged for older children (aged two years and up) and adolescents
  • choose water as a drink
  • limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake
  • choose foods low in salt
  • consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars.

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.

Further information 

A Healthy and Active Australia
www.health.gov.au/internet/healthyactive/publishing.nsf/Content/home

Get Set 4 Life
www.health.gov.au

Raising Children Network
raisingchildren.net.au/

Sources 

Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Physical activity guidelines. [online] Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. c2007. [last updated 23 Mar 2009, accessed 6 Jul 2011] Available from:
http://www.health.gov.au/

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). A Picture of Australia's Children Cat. no. PHE 112. [online] Canberra, ACT: AIHW. Jun 2009. [Accessed 6 July 2011] Available from:
http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=6442468252&libID=6442468250

Australian Society for the Study of Obesity. Obesity in Australian children fact sheet. [online] University of Sydney, NSW: The Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society. c2008 [Accessed 6 July 2011] Available from:
http://anzos.com/

Gill TP Baur LA Bauman AE et al. Childhood obesity in Australia remains a widespread health concern that warrants population-wide prevention programs. MJA. 2009; 190: 146-148.

Kipping R Jago R Lawlor D. Obesity in children. Part 1: Epidemiology, measurement, risk factors, and screening. BMJ. 2008; 337: a1824.

McLennan J. Obesity in children, tackling a growing problem. Australian Family Physician. 2004; 33: 33-36.

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Obesity: the prevention, identification, assessment and management of overweight and obesity in adults and children. [online] Dec 2006 [accessed 6 Jul 2011] Available from:
http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG43

Nutrition Australia. Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents. [online] Melbourne, VIC: The Australian Nutrition Foundation Inc. 2003 [Accessed 6 Jul 2011] Available from:
http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/national/resource/dietary-guidelines-children-and-adolescents

Product information: Orlistat (Xenical) [online] 2006. Dee Why, NSW: Roche Pharmaceuticals [Accessed 6 July 2011] Available from:
http://www.pbs.gov.au

Reilly J Armstrong J Dorosty A et al. Early life risk factors for obesity in childhood: cohort study. BMJ. 2005; 330: 1357.

Last published: 30 July 2011

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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