Childhood Obesity: When is it a Cause for Concern?

Childhood obesity is a medical condition whereby children and adolescents weigh 20% above the normal weight for their age and height. According to SingHealth, it is estimated that 11% of school children in Singapore are overweight and/or obese.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) percentile is widely used to measure obesity in children and adolescents (aged two to 20), as it considers the fact that they are growing at different rates depending on their age and gender. Growth charts such as this and this are also used by health professionals to determine if a child’s weight is deemed healthy for his/her age, height and gender.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity occurs due to a variety of reasons, with genetic factors, a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits being the most common causes. Although obesity may run in some families, not all children with a family history of this health condition will be overweight – shared family lifestyle habits such as eating patterns and preferences, as well as the frequency of physical activity also play a role in this aspect.

On the other hand, there are cases of childhood obesity which are caused by a medical condition such as hormonal issues. This can be determined through a physical exam and a series of blood tests administered by your doctor.

Risk Factors

Children who are obese are at risk of developing various health-related problems, which include:

  • High cholesterol and high blood pressure: Unhealthy eating habits can cause your child to develop either or both conditions, which can lead to the accumulation of plaques in the arteries. These plaques cause the arteries to narrow and harden, and may lead to a heart attack or stroke later in life.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle increases one’s risk of having type 2 diabetes. This condition affects the way your child’s body uses and breaks down sugar (glucose)
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): NAFLD usually presents itself without any symptoms and can cause fatty deposits to build up in the liver, leading to scarring and liver damage.
  • Sleep disorders: Being overweight or obese can cause breathing difficulties in your child such as obstructive sleep apnea, where his/her breathing repeatedly stops and starts while sleeping.
  • Skin conditions such as heat rash, fungal infections and acne: As children who are overweight tend to generate more body heat and/or sweat excessively, they are also more susceptible to developing skin conditions such as heat rash, fungal infections and acne.

These health issues will usually stay with your children as they grow up, and may also lead to psychological problems such as poor self-esteem and depression.

Is My Child Overweight, and Should I Be Worried?

If you are concerned about the rate and amount of weight that your child is putting on, do bring this up with his/her doctor. Here, your child’s history of growth and development, your family’s weight-for-height history and your child’s stand on the growth charts will be taken into account to determine if his/her weight falls under the unhealthy range.

When it comes to assessing your child’s BMI percentile, here are some things to note:

  • Children with a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and less than the 95th percentile are considered overweight
  • Children whose BMI hit the 95th percentile and above are classified as obese

How to help your child beat childhood obesity?

The most important thing that you can do for your child as he/she battles childhood obesity is to be supportive and sensitive towards his/her feelings. How children feel about themselves are often based on their parents’ views about them. At the same time, it is also important to talk to your children about their weight and encourage them to share their concerns and challenges with you.

At the same time, parents should also work on gradually changing the family’s lifestyle and eating habits to keep everyone in the pink of health. Here are some ways to help you accomplish this:

  • Set a good example – Serve healthy foods and snacks to the family and include some physical activity to maintain an active lifestyle. Once your children see that you are making an effort to eat right and stay active, they will pick up these good habits in no time.
  • Plan family activities that double up as exercise – This includes taking a walk in the park, swimming and biking.
  • Reduce sedentary activities – Cut down or replace screen time with physical activities, as per the suggestions above.
  • Praise your child’s efforts – Recognise the efforts made by your child to keep a healthier lifestyle, even if they are small ones. But do remember not to reward them with food – focus instead on activities that they look forward to such as a movie treat or a trip to the museum.
  • Help your child focus on positive goals – Instead of reaching for the impossible, point out to your child his/her milestones and improvements. For example, it may involve the fact that he/she can now run for 20 minutes without feeling exhausted.

Whichever approach you choose to take to help your child beat childhood obesity, do bear in mind not to make healthy eating and an active lifestyle a chore which he/she dreads, but to create family bonding opportunities that will benefit the health of everyone in the family.

 

Article reviewed by Dr. William Tan, Chief Strategy Officer and Medical Director at MindChamps Medical.

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