Childhood obesity

Childhood obesity

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About childhood obesity

Overweight and obesity are terms you might hear when children are above their healthiest weight and have too much body fat or an abnormal amount of body fat. Obesity is a more serious form of overweight.

Overweight and obesity happen when the energy children get from food and drinks is greater than the energy they use through physical activity, growing and other body processes. This extra energy gets stored as fat.

Being overweight and obese are significant health issues for children. If you help children deal with these issues during childhood, they're less likely to have problems with overweight and obesity later in life.

Factors that influence healthy weight, overweight and obesity

Many factors can put children at a higher risk of becoming overweight and obese. These factors include:

  • unhealthy food and drink choices
  • lack of physical activity
  • family role models
  • family history and medical factors
  • other factors like screen time and sleep.

You can help your child maintain a healthy weight by looking at these factors in your family's lifestyle.

Food and drink choices
If you offer your child a range of healthy nutritious food, it will help your child grow and develop in a healthy way. Your child will also be less likely to gain too much body fat.

Healthy nutritious foods include vegetables, fruits, grains, reduced-fat dairy and protein-rich foods like lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, peas, beans and lentils. For healthy development, your child needs to eat different amounts of these foods at different ages:

  • 2-3 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
  • 4-8 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
  • 9-11 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
  • 12-13 years: illustrated dietary guidelines
  • 14-18 years: illustrated dietary guidelines.

Tap water and reduced-fat milk are the healthiest drinks for children.

Physical activity
You can encourage your child to be physically active by walking when possible and playing outdoors. Physical activity will:

  • use up your child's excess energy
  • decrease your child's stress
  • prevent disease
  • give your child the chance to socialise with other children.

All these things are part of an overall healthy lifestyle for your child.

Family role models
Your child is more likely to make healthy food choices and be active if she sees you eating healthily and being active. Young children do as you do, so modelling healthy eating and regular exercise can have a big impact.

Family history and medical factors
Everyone comes in different shapes and sizes, partly because of lifestyle, but also because of genes. Some children are at greater risk of obesity because of genes that make them gain weight more easily, or because they have health problems or take certain medications.

If your child has any of these risk factors, it's even more important for your family to make healthy food and lifestyle choices.

Other factors
Screen time, busy family lifestyles, lack of outdoor space - all these things can make it easy for children to overeat and harder for them to be active. It can be tough, but there are ways to overcome obstacles to physical activity.

Another risk factor for childhood obesity is sleep problems. Children who don't get enough sleep at night are more likely to become overweight or obese. Promoting good sleep for children is an important part of helping them to develop healthy habits.

Getting your child into healthy fresh food and physical activity early in life can help reduce your child's risk of overweight issues or obesity in the future.

Why your child needs to maintain a healthy weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is important to your child's health now and in the future. A healthy weight now reduces your child's chances of:

  • being overweight or obese as an adult
  • developing serious health disorders during childhood, including type-2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnoea and hip and joint problems
  • suffering from emotional and social problems like teasing and bullying, low self-esteem, depression, poor body image and eating disorders
  • suffering physical health problems in adulthood, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some types of cancer, infertility and skin disorders.

When overweight problems and childhood obesity are picked up early, it gives children a better chance of avoiding long-term weight and health problems.

Worried about weight or childhood obesity: what to do

If you're worried that your child might have a weight problem or even childhood obesity, it's important to start with a proper assessment.

A GP, paediatrician or dietitian can look at your child's growth and work out whether he has a healthy weight. The health professional will look at your child's height, weight and body mass index (BMI). BMI is a way of working out your body's healthy weight range.

If your child is overweight, you can make many small and realistic lifestyle changes to help your child. If you involve the whole family in these changes, it's easier for your child to stick with the changes - and it's good for everyone.

Here are simple changes you can make to everyday family eating:

  • Set a good example, and show your child that you enjoy healthy eating yourself.
  • Involve your child in choosing and preparing healthy foods for meals. This helps children learn about healthy foods and making good choices. Children are also more likely to eat something they've helped to make.
  • Eat more vegetables and salad. Aim to fill half the plate at main meals with salad or vegetables.
  • Keep 'sometimes' foods and drinks out of the house. This includes fast food, potato chips, biscuits, cakes, lollies, flavoured milks and soft drinks. If you don't have them at home, it's harder for your child to eat them.
  • Establish regular family meals, including breakfast, and sit down to enjoy meals together as a family - with the TV switched off as often as you can.
  • Have healthy snacks handy for when you know your child will be hungry. For example, keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the bench and a container of chopped fresh vegies in the fridge.

Here are simple changes you can make to get more physical activity into your family's life:

  • Make sure that your child balances screen time with other activities that are better for her health, like physical activity. Screen time includes TV, DVDs, computers, video games, mobiles phones and tablets.
  • Give your child the chance for active play. Your child needs at least one hour of physical activity, which can be spread throughout the day. Physical activity during the school day usually isn't enough.
  • Build activity into everyday family life - for example, go for family walks or bike rides together.
  • Walk to and from school, the local shops or friends' places if possible.

Everyone with overweight problems needs support to manage their weight. Your child can't do it without you. If the whole family makes healthy food choices and gets active, it's easier for your child to keep going with healthy lifestyle changes.

Talking about healthy weight and childhood obesity

Childhood obesity is a sensitive issue.

If your child does have an overweight problem, it's better not to label him as overweight or obese. Instead you can talk about what your family needs to do to help your child get to a healthy weight.

Here are tips for talking with your child about overweight and obesity:

  • Focus on health and healthy lifestyle rather than weight loss.
  • Try to use terms like 'above a healthy weight' rather than labels like 'fat', 'good', 'bad', 'chunky' or 'obese'.
  • Praise and encourage qualities that aren't about the way your child looks. For example, 'I like the way you handled that big school assignment', 'I feel proud when you look after the younger kids so well' and 'It's great that you were calm before your talk'.
  • Try to avoid saying things like 'Don't you think you should… ' or 'You shouldn't be having that'. Children might feel you're nagging and could be less likely to do what you want.

Getting help

The following professionals can help you with your child's eating, activity habits or weight:

  • child and family health nurse
  • GP
  • paediatrician
  • dietitian
  • psychologist.

You can find local health professionals and your local community health centre by using the National Health Services Directory.