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Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity continues to rise around the world, and the World Health Organization has called it one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. We know it’s on the rise and we know it’s a health risk, but what can we do as parents and as a community to stop it?

In the U.S. almost one in three children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese. One in five children qualify by definition as obese. These numbers have tripled since the 1970s.

Unfortunately, there is not a common ideal definition for childhood obesity. The most commonly used is based on body mass index, or BMI. BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by their height in meters squared. In the U.S., a BMI of 85% to 95% for age and sex is defined as overweight and 95% or greater is defined as obese.

There are many health risks for obese children. Being overweight or obese puts children at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, increases the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Children are at a higher risk of asthma and sleep apnea if they are overweight. Overweight and obese children also suffer more from bullying, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

The increase in obesity is a complex health issue caused by many factors. Where we live, what we eat, how active we are and how much we sleep are all factors in obesity. Children in lower socioeconomic communities tend to live in what are called “food deserts,” where access to healthy, affordable foods are severely limited. In these communities, access to highly processed, high fat, high caloric foods are often all that is available. Often, lack of information about what foods are healthy and what are appropriate portion sizes lead to increased caloric intake. For nutrition advice and ideas for affordable menu planning and proper portion sizes, the website is an excellent resource.

Where we live also can influence how much physical activity our children can get. It’s nice if children have access to bike trails and sidewalks or nearby parks, but a lot of communities do not have these things available. Parents need to set an example and be active with their children. The recommendation for children and adolescents is 60 minutes of vigorous activity daily.

Increased screen time is a major cause for the rise of obesity in our youth. Screen time should be limited to about one hour daily (yes, 1 hour daily).

Poor sleep is increasingly common in children, often due to electronics. Associations between short sleep duration in early childhood and obesity are consistently found. The timing of eating, dietary intake and changes in appetite-regulating hormones have all been identified as causes for sleep-obesity associations. It’s important that adolescents get at least eight hours of sleep and younger children need even more.

With childhood obesity becoming an epidemic, we must as parents and providers take action. Educating ourselves and our youth about nutrition with websites like, encouraging exercise daily, promoting healthy sleep habits and restricting screen time are all things that can make a tremendous positive change.


Information provided by Dr. Tiffany Hill, board-certified pediatrician who sees patients at UT Health East Texas Physicians on Fifth Street in Tyler. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Hill, call 903-596-DOCS.

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