Helping Overweight Kids Make Healthy Changes

Kids don’t necessarily outgrow extra pounds

overweight children

Are chubby children the “new normal”? If so, it’s a trend doctors hope to reverse. It has little to do with appearance and everything to do with health.

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Consider these statistics:

  • More than 25 million U.S. children are currently overweight or obese — triple the number in 1980.
  • These children are likely to be the first generation to die sooner than their parents.

“Behind the shorter life span are profound health problems that begin in childhood,” says Cleveland Clinic Children’s pediatrician Sara Lappé, MD.

Health problems caused by childhood obesity

These problems were practically unheard of in kids a few short decades ago:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol
  • Sleep apnea
  • Fatty liver disease (fatty deposits that can lead to cirrhosis later)
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS, or irregular periods in overweight adolescent girls) 

Childhood obesity can also cause asthma and depression in children not otherwise at risk.

To find out if you need to take steps to address your child’s weight, start by talking to your pediatrician or family doctor. “Don’t be afraid to ask if your child’s weight and height are OK if the doctor doesn’t bring it up,” advises Dr. Lappé. Doctors track children’s growth and development and will have the data you need to know.

“A lot of families see overweight and obesity as an insurmountable problem. But small changes really add up.”

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5 signs you shouldn’t ignore

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for these signs that extra pounds may be harming your child’s health:

1. Difficulty keeping up with other kids while playing
“Asthma is a big problem for kids with obesity,” says Dr. Lappé. Exercise often triggers asthma, a condition that makes breathing difficult. Add excess weight to these breathing difficulties, and running and playing hard can be a challenge.

2. Aches and pains while moving
Excess weight can actually cause pain and deformity in children’s joints. “Kids may get to the point where they don’t know how to move their body, have limited flexibility, and develop other bone and joint problems,” says Dr. Lappé.

3. Snoring at night
Sleep apnea causes snoring, disturbed sleep and pauses in breathing while asleep. “Most kids who are heavy have sleep problems, whether it’s sleep apnea or insomnia,” she says.

4. Acting nervous, sad or moody
Children who are overweight often suffer from anxiety, depression and body image concerns. “They are often bullied at school,” says Dr. Lappé.

5. Darkening of skin around the neck
This darkening, called acanthosis nigricans, and being overweight are outward signs that a child is at risk for type 2 diabetes. “You can see darkening around the neck, under the arms or in the groin,” she says. “A lot of parents mistake this for dirt and try to scrub it off.” 

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If your older child is overweight, it’s never too late to do something about it. If you are the parent of a newborn, now is the time to think about diet and activity.

“Prevention is the best approach,” says Dr. Lappé. “Obese kids create more fat cells than healthy-weight kids as they grow — up until early adolescence. Because of this, they have more difficulty losing weight when they are older.”

Action steps

Parents can follow these steps to help heavier children reach a healthier weight:

  • Serve your child 5 fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Encourage at least 1 hour of physical activity every day.
  • Limit media time to 2 hours (that means TV, video, computer and smartphones)
  • Eliminate ALL soda and sugary drinks. Make water your child’s go-to beverage.

Be Well Kids Clinic

For obese and overweight kids and teens ages 2 through 20, Cleveland Clinic Children’s new Be Well Kids Clinic offers help. Dr. Lappé teams up with pediatric GI specialist Naim Alkhouri, MD, and Kari Gali, CNP, to do medical evaluations and follow kids monthly, seeing them individually and with their families in a group.

A registered dietitian, pediatric psychologist and exercise physiologist lend their expertise, and any kids with weight-related medical complications are seen by Cleveland Clinic Children’s specialists.

“A lot of families see overweight and obesity as an insurmountable problem,” says Dr. Lappé. “They feel overwhelmed by everything they need to change. But small changes really add up. Every parent can make these changes to get their kids — and the whole family — healthier.” 

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