One out of three American kids ages 6 to 11 is overweight or obese. Obesity can lead to serious health problems down the road. Conditions like high cholesterol, asthma, a weaker immune system, arthritis, cancer, heart disease and diabetes can develop if the body is carrying extra weight. There are also emotional health effects, as many overweight or obese children are often bullied.
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We spoke with pediatric gastroenterologist Uwe Blecker, MD about how to know if your child is overweight, and what you can do.
Know the warning signs
It's "baby fat," or "just a stage," some parents will say. But ignoring your child's weight problem won't help it go away. Make an appointment with your pediatrician if you notice these signs:
- Snoring at night, or trouble sleeping
- Difficulty buttoning pants
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble exercising or walking up stairs
Your pediatrician will help you understand how serious your child’s weight really is. “We look at their age on the BMI chart," explains Dr. Blecker. "A child is overweight when his or her BMI is above the 85th percentile, and obese if their BMI is at or above the 95th percentile."
Develop a weight-loss plan
Helping your child lose weight should begin and end with your pediatrician, says Blecker. He explains how he works with kids to lose weight.
“We look at three age categories: 2 to 5 years, 6 to 11 years and 12 to 18 years. Children ages 2 to 5 have a very significant amount of growth in front of them,” says Blecker. “When we have an obese child in that age group, we don't work on losing weight necessarily, we just try to decrease or stop the weight gain.”
Once a child hits age 12 or is going through puberty, working on weight loss becomes a larger issue. They need to make changes, Blecker says. "The big things are avoiding fried food and sugary drinks, and adding in more fruits and vegetables."
The proper exercise plan will also depend on your child’s age and weight. “We really can’t ask kids who are severely overweight to do significant physical activity because they weigh too much,” says Blecker. He recommends you start with walking, and as they lose weight and become more fit, increase the activity.
Be a role model
Once you've identified that your child has a weight problem, setting a positive example with diet and exercise is key. "Obesity interventions do not work if the parents don't participate," Blecker emphasizes, who adds that he's seen teenage patients who want to lose weight, but their parents go on setting out the chips and soda. "That is not going to work," he says.
Above all, avoid sugary drinks that pack on pounds, Blecker says. “If children aren’t exposed to sugary drinks, they typically don’t want them," he explains. Of course, it’s unrealistic to think your child or teenager won’t have a soda or a sugar-laden latte when you’re not around, he adds. Just be sure they aren't in the habit of drinking them at home.
When you are together, try cooking a wholesome meal as a family, or make a habit of walking around the neighborhood every evening. You’ll spend more time with one another, and work together toward your weight loss goals.