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Obesity and Overweight

From one of our pediatricians: What research tells us about how parents can fight the obesity epidemic

What is obesity?
Obesity means having too much body fat.  A child is obese if their weight is more than 20% higher than the ideal weight for a boy or girl of their age and height.

How common is obesity and overweight?
In the years 2003-2004, 17.1% of children and teens, aged 2-19 years (over 12 and a half million young people) were overweight, and 32.2% of adults (over 66 million) were obese. Almost 5% of adults were extremely obese [1].

Researchers estimate that 15% of all children in the U.S. are overweight, and nearly 25% of Black and Hispanic children weigh too much [2].  Obesity is common enough among children that we can consider it an epidemic.  Studies have shown a dramatic rise in the number of obese children in the last few decades in this country. Between 1980 and 2000 obesity rates doubled among children and tripled among teens [3].

What are the concerns about obesity in general?
Being obese increases a child's risk for some serious childhood medical problems [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17]. These include:

In addition to the risks to kids in childhood, research over the last 40 years tells us that overweight kids are at greater risk of becoming obese adults [18] [ [19] [20], with all the health problems associated with obesity lasting through the lifespan. These obesity-associated health problems include high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, gout, pulmonary problems, gall bladder disease, liver disease, psychosocial problems, reproductive problems, and some types of cancer. 

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that about 112,000 deaths are associated with obesity each year in the US.  The CDC notes that this number may be adjusted as the science continues to evolve [21]

How can I tell if my child is overweight?
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, you should take them to see their doctor.  There are some different measurements a doctor may take to tell whether your child is overweight

How do kids become obese or overweight?
Like most chronic health problems, obesity is caused by complex interactions between genes, environment and behavior/habits.

Many studies have shown that there is not a big difference in the amount of food eaten and physical activity between obese and non-obese kids.  Probably small differences in eating and activity over time really add up and lead to weight gain.   Obese children do tend to eat larger portions or higher calorie foods, like high-fat foods. 

Physical activity and inactivity are very important factors.  Many studies have shown that kids who spend more time watching television [23] and playing video games are at higher risk of becoming overweight.  One in three high school youth do not engage in vigorous physical activity.  Less than 30% attend daily gym class [24]. Sprawling development that discourages physical activity and makes walking and biking difficult or dangerous is also a factor [25].

Kids in families with obese parents tend to be obese themselves.  If one parent is obese or overweight, their teen has an 80% chance of being overweight.  This is probably because of a combination of genetics and family behavior and habits.  Children of moms who have diabetes are more likely to be overweight.

Very rarely, obesity is caused by an underlying medical condition.  Illnesses that can cause obesity include endocrine problems and some genetic syndromes.  Your doctor will probably be able to rule out an underlying medical problem by a physical exam and by taking your child’s medical history.  Sometimes lab tests are needed.

Some studies indicate that environmental chemicals may play a role.  Researchers hypothesize that in utero or newborn exposures to chemicals such as endocrine disruptors (for example xenoestrogen bisphenol A—which is in food and drink containers) may damage the body’s weight-control mechanisms and lead to obesity [26] [27].

Can medication help my child lose weight?
None of the new medicines to treat obesity are approved for children or adolescents to use.  They may affect your child’s growth and development, and the risk of dangerous complications is far greater than any benefit they might have. 

By far the best approach is helping your whole family—including your child—change their behavior.

How can I help my child lose weight, or stay a healthy weight?

Make it a whole family effort:

Be a positive role model:

Help your child set goals:

Watch their “media diet,” too:

Eat healthy meals and snacks:myplate

Get moving:

For more information and tips:

What if everything you suggest does not seem to be working?
If making these changes at home does not seem to be helping, you can talk to your child’s doctor about a formal weight-control program, such as the UMHS Michigan Pediatric Outpatient Weight Evaluation and Reduction (MPOWER) program for young people ages 13-17. MPOWERis a comprehensive program that helps kids motivate, build confidence, and create new lifestyle habits. 

A weight-control program should:

What books do you recommend?

What are some other sources of information and support?
Related topics on YourChild:

AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics (AAP) Policy Statements and Clinical Reports:

Information for Parents:

Information for kids and teens:

Organizations and Support:


Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN. Reviewed by Kathy Clark, RN, CS, MSN.
Updated August 2011


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