4 things you need to know about childhood obesity

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Childhood obesity is a serious health problem that affects nearly 1-in-5 children and teenagers in the United States. And it’s an even bigger concern in Tennessee, where 38% of children are either overweight or obese. That’s significantly above the national average of 31%.

WellTuned spoke with Dr. Sharon Moore-Caldwell, a physician and medical director for BlueCare of Tennessee, about this ongoing health challenge for many children and adolescents.

Facts about childhood obesity

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: Childhood obesity is a problem that we should all take seriously. Here’s what you need to know:

1. An obese child is one who is significantly overweight, based on their height and weight.

Determining obesity in children and teens is based on Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is a measure of a person’s body fat based on their height and weight. Generally speaking, an obese child is one who has a BMI in the 95th percentile or above. A child whose BMI ranges between the 80th and 95th percentile is considered overweight.

2. A number of factors contribute to childhood obesity.

A likely culprit for excess weight is an imbalance between calories and activity. That is, if a child consumes far more calories than they burn during exercise and activity, they may begin to put on extra pounds. However, a number of factors can contribute to the development of obesity in children and adolescents:

  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Lack of access to healthy food
  • Lack of safe places for children to play and exercise
  • Not enough opportunities for physical activity during the day
  • While uncommon, underlying medical conditions may also contribute to obesity (your child’s doctor can give guidance if an evaluation or labs are needed if this is the case)

A child’s family culture and habits can also influence their chances of becoming overweight or obese. Lower rates of obesity are often associated with families that prioritize healthy eating and regular physical activity.

3. Childhood obesity increases the risk of other health conditions

Childhood obesity is linked with long-term poor physical health, such as an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. In fact, an estimated 240,000 children in Tennessee already have at least one obesity-linked health condition like high cholesterol, hypertension, or diabetes.

Obesity is also associated with a number of mental health conditions. Children who carry around excess weight may be more likely to develop low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. They’re also more likely to experience bullying and discrimination.

4. You can help reduce your child’s chances of becoming obese.

As a parent, you have a great deal of influence over your child’s health and wellbeing. Here are some steps that you can take to help reduce your child’s chances of becoming obese:

  • Get your child involved in shopping for healthy foods and This allows an opportunity for your child to learn about reading food labels and to get his/her buy-in to choosing and eating healthy foods.
  • Examine your family’s meals and eating habits. See where you can incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables and reduce the intake of less-healthy foods, like fried and fast food.
  • Swap out high-calorie beverages like sodas and sweetened juices for water
  • Encourage your children to go outside and play and model this behavior by going out for a walk with your child.
  • Turn on some music in the house and have a dance party.
  • Look for local parks, playgrounds, greenways, trails, and BlueCross Healthy Places in your community where your children can run, play and enjoy being outside.
  • Talk about your concerns with your child’s healthcare provider during their next well-child visit.

What else can you do as a parent concerned about childhood obesity?

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: It’s important to model the behavior that you want to see in your child. Remember the old expression, “Do as I say, not as I do?” When it comes to obesity, it’s important for you to do what you say. If you want your child to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly, they need to see you making those same choices, too.

“Another key element to reducing your child’s risk of becoming overweight or obese is intentionality,” says Dr. Moore-Caldwell. “Be intentional about whatever you do. Don’t leave it to chance. Also, remember that it is important to balance the conversation about healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle as to not cause undue stress and anxiousness around food. You don’t have to overcomplicate things, but you do want to make plans that will help your child and your family be as healthy as possible.”

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.