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Childhood obesity isn't a new problem among American children, but it's getting worse. "Overall rates of childhood obesity have tripled since the 1980s," notes Summit Health bariatric surgeon Dr. James Lopes. According to Dr. Lopes, approximately 18.5% of youth in the United States meet the criteria of obesity, while 8.5% of those ages 12 to 19 are severely obese. During the COVID-19 pandemic, obesity increased 1% for patients aged 13 to 17 years and 2.6% for those aged 5 to 9 years.

"With the closures of many outdoor and recreational activities, along with the stress induced by lack of human interactions, people across all ages have seen an increase in weight," says Jemima Carvajal, APN, a member of the Summit Health internal medicine team. She adds that school closures significantly impacted child obesity rates due to:

  • Lack of nutritional food options outside of school
  • Limited physical activity and outdoor play
  • A significant increase in screen time
  • Easy access to cheaper calorie-dense, low-nutrition food options

Is it dangerous if my child is obese?

Yes, it is. "Obesity can take a toll on one's health," says Carvajal, "especially in children whose bodies are still in mental and physical development." Obesity puts children at risk for:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep apnea and other breathing issues
  • Cancer
  • Joint pain

It also impacts kids psychologically. "Childhood obesity can profoundly affect a child's emotional well-being and self-esteem," says Dr. Lopes. "It's also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child." He adds that if the issue isn't addressed adequately, children who suffer from obesity are likely to continue on that path as they progress into adulthood.

How do I help my child lose weight?

While the statistics are overwhelming, the good news is that there are well-proven measures that help your child get healthy. "A healthy diet and keeping active are the best way to stay in shape," says Carvajal. Simple diet changes include:

  • Replacing soda with water (or plain sparkling water if your child wants a little bit of fizz).
  • Swapping out cookies with fruit to satisfy a sweet tooth.
  • Substitute chips and dip with veggies like carrots and broccoli to dunk in Greek yogurt spruced up with various herbs.

Carvajal also emphasizes that "some physical activity is better than nothing." Extreme athleticism isn't the goal—it's to get your child (and you) moving. Encouraging the whole family to participate makes it fun for everyone. Whether it's an after-dinner walk around the block, a family day at the beach, or a backyard game of tag, keep it fun and non-competitive.

It is best for you and your child to speak to a pediatrician or other primary care provider (PCP), who should be able to emphasize the importance of a healthful lifestyle and offer practical steps towards achieving a healthier weight. A PCP can also help dispel any misconceptions about fad diets and recommend a physical activity program that is safe and effective for your child.

These lifestyle changes aren't working. What should I do?

If your child is obese, and a healthy diet and physical activity hasn’t helped, speak to your child's physician for a possible referral to a nutritionist and/or a behavioral health specialist. These providers can help your child start and stick with healthy eating habits and regular physical activity.

If your child is over the age of 14, suffers from severe obesity and is at increased risk for chronic health issues, speak to their physician about bariatric surgery. As Dr. Lopes explains, denying weight-loss surgery to obese children puts them at a significant disadvantage. "Earlier surgical intervention allows adolescents to reach a normal weight, avoid lifelong medication therapy, and prevent organ damage from co-morbidities," he says. "Weight-loss surgery has been shown to be one of the main obesity treatment modalities with the best-sustained weight loss and control of obesity-related co-morbidities."

In general, criteria for considering bariatric surgery include:

· Body mass index (BMI) of ≥40 kg/m2 or ≥140 percent of the 95th percentile of BMI for age and impaired quality of life

· BMI of ≥35 kg/m2 or ≥120 percent of the 95th percentile of BMI for age with significant conditions that place them at increased risk such as sleep apnea, fatty liver, or poorly controlled diabetes

Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint

As you make decisions for your child's health and future, stay engaged with their medical team to ensure the choices are safe. Fad diets aren't sustainable and workouts that your child doesn't enjoy usually lead to lack of motivation. A well-balanced diet and finding fun ways to get your child moving are key to enacting a healthy lifestyle, as is keeping your child's doctors in the loop on their physical and mental health.

"The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone," says Carvajal. "But it's important to continue to remain healthy during these difficult times. A family needs to come together and maintain an active and healthy lifestyle, which will create a stronger future for everyone."