Locations:
Search IconSearch

Lasting Impact: The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Obesity

Early weight gain can lead to health issues like heart disease, diabetes and cancer

Caregiver and child eating pizza together

Obesity doesn’t just bring immediate health concerns for children with excess body fat. It brings worries for the future, too.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Early obesity establishes a pattern that can lead to a lifetime of weight and health challenges. Kids who carry extra pounds are more at risk of developing chronic, life-altering medical conditions as they grow up.

At the moment, that’s a stark reality of what’s ahead for more than 160 million young people around the world living with obesity. That figure includes more than 14.7 million children in the United States.

These numbers continue to grow, too, fueling talk of an “obesity epidemic” among our youngest generation. Childhood obesity now qualifies as the most common chronic disease affecting youths.

To learn more about the long-term consequences of this trend, we turn to Lina Alkhaled, MD, a specialist in pediatric obesity.

Defining obesity in children

So, when is a kid considered to have obesity or overweight? That’s an assessment made using body mass index (BMI) plus a BMI-for-age-and-sex growth chart, according to Dr. Alkhaled. (BMI uses a ratio of height and weight measurements to estimate body fat.)

Children whose BMI places them in the 95th percentile or above on the growth chart are considered to have obesity. Placement in the 85th to less than the 95th percentile qualifies as experiencing overweight.

Using the chart makes the determination process different from the BMI-only method used for adults without regard to age or sex.

“There is not an absolute BMI number that defines obesity in children,” clarifies Dr. Alkhaled. “Instead, we plot the BMI value on certain curves for males and females. Based on where that point lands, we can define obesity or overweight.”

It should be noted, too, that obesity is a complex chronic disease. Many factors ­— including genetics and socioeconomic status — contribute to why some children gain more weight than others. It’s often not as simple as just food intake and activity levels.

Advertisement

Potential long-term health effects of early obesity

No matter the cause or reason behind an obesity diagnosis, excess fat can bring associated health complications. Those extra pounds strain a body while forcing it to work harder to function.

As one group of researchers eloquently put it, obesity “serves as the soil for the development of other diseases.” Here are a few of those potential health risks.

Heart health

Excess weight can take a toll on the heart, forcing it to work harder to circulate blood around a larger body. Obesity can also fuel heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol.

Early obesity increases the risk of heart issues later in life. A 2023 study found that kids with higher BMI are 40% more likely to experience cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

Those same researchers reported that children with multiple obesity-related risk factors — such as high BMI, high blood pressure or high cholesterol — could have up to a nine-times greater risk of a heart attack or stroke.

“When you tie all of these factors and complications together, they can lead to heart diseases in the future,” says Dr. Alkhaled. “They’re very closely linked.”

Diabetes

Your body breaks down the food you eat into glucose (sugar) to provide the energy you need to power through the day. Insulin, a hormone made in your pancreas, plays a key role in regulating this process.

Obesity can lead to insulin resistance, meaning your body doesn’t respond as it should. This can lead to high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia) and the development of diabetes.

Increases in diagnoses of childhood diabetes have mirrored the rise in obesity, notes Dr. Ahlkaled. Research shows that children with obesity are more likely to develop lifelong diabetes than those with lower BMIs.

Early-onset diabetes also increases the risk of heart disease, as well as complications like kidney disease, eye disease and nerve damage.

Various cancers

Obesity at an early age creates an inflammatory environment that appears to suppress a body’s ability to ward off cancer later in life. Studies show that higher BMI during childhood may increase the risk of:

Overall, there’s a strong connection between obesity and cancer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that obesity and being overweight elevate the risk for 13 different kinds of cancer.

Mental health

Carrying extra weight doesn’t just take a physical toll on a person. There’s a mental one, too.

Research shows that children with obesity are 32% more likely to have depression than children at a healthier weight. This elevated risk of depression carries over into adulthood, too, says Dr. Alkhaled.

Advertisement

Excess weight can also lead to low self-esteem, eating disorders and social anxiety in children, which can become lifelong issues.

“It has been found that children with obesity may have a very poor quality of life, even poorer than kids with cancer,” shares Dr. Alkhaled. “It can have a very negative impact on mental health.”

Obesity as an adult

Many of the health issues noted here aren’t just because of early-in-life obesity. Often, they’re a byproduct of continued obesity into adulthood.

Consider these study findings:

  • 55% of children with obesity go on to have obesity during adolescence.
  • 80% of adolescents with obesity will still have obesity in adulthood.

But it’s important to note that these statistics aren’t destiny: “Children who attain a healthier weight before adulthood usually have similar health outcomes to those who never had obesity,” says Dr. Alkhaled. “Managing obesity early can help prevent future complications.”

How to reverse the childhood obesity trend

Guiding children with obesity toward a healthier weight begins with encouraging lifestyle changes, says Dr. Alkhaled. Positive steps include:

  • Eating healthier. Get more fruits, veggies and whole-grain foods on the family dinner table, and fewer high-fat or processed items. Replace sugary drinks such as soda or fruit drinks with low-fat milk. (Get some healthy snack ideas for kids.)
  • Moving more. Physically active kids tend to have less body fat than those who sit around a lot. According to the CDC, children aged 6 to 17 need at least an hour of daily activity. Children aged 3 to 5 years should be active throughout the day.
  • Catching ZZZs. Did you know children who don’t get enough sleep are more apt to gain weight? Establishing a restful bedtime routine can bring healthy results. (Learn how much sleep kids need by age.)
  • Limiting screen time. Turn off those tablets, computers and TVs to encourage more activity. Reducing screen time also can help improve sleep.
  • Involving the whole family. It’ll be easier for kids to adopt the suggestions if they see others doing the same thing. “Be a role model,” encourages Dr. Alkhaled.

Advertisement

If lifestyle adjustments don’t bring changes, talk to your child’s healthcare provider about options such as medications that can help manage obesity.

Talk to your child openly about obesity, too, and explain how making changes is about being healthier in the present and future. Avoid blaming or shaming language or focusing too hard on weight numbers.

“Address obesity from a health standpoint,” advises Dr. Alkhaled. “Explain to your child what they can do to feel more energized during the day, sleep better at night and live a healthier and hopefully longer life.”

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Caregiver talking to pouting, upset child with arms crossed
July 24, 2024/Parenting
How To Discipline a Child Who Won’t Listen

Setting specific expectations and praising good behavior are crucial to cultivating discipline

Person standing on a scale in bathroom, with over-sized 30-day calendar floating
July 15, 2024/Weight Loss
Why Losing 10 Pounds in a Month Isn’t the Right Goal

Rapid weight loss isn’t sustainable or healthy — for weight loss success, focus on long-term solutions

Child talking with caregiver on couch
July 12, 2024/Mental Health
Talking To Your Child About School Shooting Drills

‘Active shooter’ exercises may raise both awareness and anxiety

Child crying and screaming, with caregiver handing over a lollipop, with another caregiver with hands on head, stressed
June 27, 2024/Children's Health
How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums: Tips From an Expert

Stay calm, don’t give in and try to refocus their attention

Parent with teen live action role playing in community park, with people walking dogs in background
June 26, 2024/Children's Health
Building Resiliency: 6 Ways To Boost Your Teen’s Confidence and Coping Skills

Integrating coping skills into your teen’s daily routine helps turn self-care into a lifelong healthy habit

Caregiver kneeled down, talking with child in front of school
June 25, 2024/Children's Health
Have an Aggressive Toddler? Here’s How To Manage Their Behavior

Tantrums and meltdowns are normal, but you can help your child manage their bigger emotions

Adult in the passenger seat of car while smiling teen drives
June 19, 2024/Children's Health
Teen Not Talking? Here’s How To Break the Silence

Talking in the car, resisting the urge to judge and asking specific questions can help rebuild rapport

Baby getting nasal irrigation
June 17, 2024/Children's Health
Neti Pot for Babies: Is Nasal Irrigation Safe?

Yes, it’s safe for babies starting at about 9 months old and can help clear nasal mucus

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad