Childhood obesity: see causes, treatment and how to prevent


What is childhood obesity?

The obese child is characterized when the body weight is above 15% of the mean weight for age.

The condition is related to eating habits, physical activities, biological factors and can lead the child to social, emotional and serious health problems.

Several factors can develop childhood obesity, such as eating habits, genetics, physical inactivity, psychological disorders, among others.

In children, the condition develops more easily, due to the organism that is still forming.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity is one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century, with high incidence, especially in developing countries.

Because it can cause bigger problems like diabetes , heart problems, malformation of the skeleton and even shorter life expectancy.

According to the Pan American Health Organization, about 15% of children and 8% of adolescents suffer from obesity, and 8 out of 10 adolescents remain obese in adulthood.

Between 1975 and 1997, the prevalence of childhood obesity in Brazil increased by 12 percentage points, from 3 to 15% of the population. In 2010, there were 42 million overweight children worldwide.

Causes of childhood obesity

Obesity develops most commonly due to nutritional and / or environmental factors, but it can also be caused by other factors, such as:

  • Psychological : children with emotional problems, such as anxiety, can eat compulsively, causing obesity;
  • Medicines : some medications, such as those based on corticosteroids, can cause this problem;
  • Hormones : endocrine diseases can manifest themselves from weight gain, these cases correspond to about 10% of the childhood obesity index.

Nutritional factors

The common diet of Brazilians involves rice, beans , meat, salad, vegetables and fruits, which are considered healthy options.

However, this diet is changing and increasing its caloric content, since, due to its practicality and low cost, many parents are opting for industrialized foods .

These foods have low nutritional value and are produced taking into account neurobiological mechanisms that, according to some studies, are responsible for both chemical and food dependence.

Thus, it is believed that such foods are capable of causing compulsion.

A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience exemplifies the fact with an experiment, in which industrialized foods, cocaine and heroin were offered to guinea pigs.

When consumed, both drugs and processed foods damaged the pleasure centers of the brain, so rats began to consume these products compulsively.

What changes when we consume these foods in excess is an over-stimulation of the dopamine receptor, a pleasure-related neurotransmitter.

Over the course of three years, the rats ate more and more and became obese, after a while, they only sought industrialized and caloric foods.

Environmental factors

With the advancement of technologies, children play and practice physical activities less and less, and prefer to spend their time watching television, playing video games and using the computer.

The lack of movement causes a sedentary lifestyle, which consequently increases the weight of the children, because when they do not move, they do not lose calories. Studies show that about 10% of children who spend more than 1 hour a day in front of the TV, video games and computers are obese.

Physical activities should always be encouraged by parents, as they allow the child to join a group and become sociable, reducing the chances of feeling alone or different from other children.

Another environmental factor that can cause childhood obesity is lack of sleep. A study at Harvard University points out that children and adults who have irregular sleep are at higher risk for obesity.

Therefore, children who sleep little can suffer from weight gain, even if other risk factors are controlled.

Groups of risk

Childhood obesity can affect any child, because its main cause is related to eating habits and physical inactivity. However, there are some factors that can make the child more likely to develop this condition.

  • Children of obese parents : Children with obese parents are more likely to develop the condition, but it is not a definitive factor. Children with non-obese parents may develop the problem, just as children of obese parents may not develop it.
  • Families with limited resources : Another risk group is based on socioeconomic factors, as individuals living in communities with limited resources can choose industrialized and unhealthy foods, which can cause addiction and increase the child’s weight, without nourishing it.
  • Residents of dangerous communities : Within the socioeconomic factor, there are also individuals who live in dangerous places, which does not allow children to leave the house to exercise.

How is the diagnosis of childhood obesity made?

To find out if a child’s weight is 15% above the average, the main criterion for the diagnosis of childhood obesity, a pediatrician must calculate the body mass index, known as BMI .

BMI values ​​considered normal vary according to the age and sex of each child, and are available in WHO tables, which serve to guide doctors in the correct calculation.

To calculate the index, it is necessary to divide the body weight, in kilograms, by height, in square meters. The table below can help the patient to understand the meaning of each BMI value.

  • BMI equal to or less than 18 kg / m²: low weight in relation to height;
  • BMI between 19 and 24 kg / m²: normal weight and proportional to height;
  • BMI between 25 and 26 kg / m²: weight above normal in relation to height (overweight);
  • BMI between 27 and 39 kg / m²: weight above normal in relation to height (obesity);
  • BMI equal to or above 40 kg / m²: morbid obesity.

However, the calculation of the mass index fails to differentiate the amount of lean mass and the physical structure. Thus, there are other ways that the doctor can use to make the diagnosis. Are they:

  • Family history of obesity and health problems;
  • Child’s eating habits;
  • Amount of physical activity that the child practices;
  • Other health conditions.

Blood tests may also be ordered to check:

  • Cholesterol;
  • Glycemia;
  • Hormonal imbalances.

Always consult a doctor if you start to worry about your children’s weight. The specialists indicated for this are: pediatricians, endocrinologists, nutrologists and nutritionists.

Is childhood obesity curable? What is the treatment?

The childhood obesity is reversible and more effective way is through nutritional education along with physical activities.

Treatment should be done progressively and under the guidance of a pediatrician or nutritionist.

The child’s weight loss should be a slow and constant process, applying healthy foods and exercising in your diet to get out of a sedentary lifestyle. In rare cases, your doctor may recommend a medication to help decrease your appetite.

Nutritional education

Parents need to offer healthy foods to children. A diet based on meat, fruits, vegetables and few industrialized vegetables is extremely beneficial.

To re-educate your child’s diet, a few small changes can make a difference. Are they:

  • Present healthy foods;
  • Opt for whole foods;
  • Avoid foods rich in sugar, sodium and fats;
  • Limit the consumption of sweetened beverages and industrialized juices;
  • Reduce the amount of fast foods;
  • Serve portions appropriate to your child’s size.

Practice physical activities

Investing your child’s time in scheduled physical activities, such as classes in a sport of his preference, or unscheduled, such as play, helps in burning calories, in addition to strengthening the child’s muscles and bones.

Encouraging this practice can keep the child in the habit and avoid obesity in the long run.


This form of treatment is often not recommended, as it applies to more severe cases. Children who have already developed a problem due to obesity, such as hormonal disorders, may need medication.

These medications often help you burn calories, decrease your appetite, or decrease your absorption of nutrients. It is important that parents do not see this treatment as the main treatment, as it should only be used as a supplement.

The only way to permanently reverse this condition is with food reeducation.


This treatment is recommended only for teenagers who are unable to reduce weight with any traditional method.

Bariatric surgery, a stomach surgery, is a complicated process, which must be followed by specialist professionals, such as endocrinologist, nutritionist, pediatrician and psychologist. There are risks of complications and their long-term effects on adolescent growth and development are still largely unknown.

It should be the last option to try, but it still does not guarantee that the child will lose excess weight or if it will be maintained after surgery.

Living with childhood obesity

The child’s weight loss process is always complicated, as he is probably not used to a healthy lifestyle, just as he may not be able to understand why this is necessary.

So, it is up to the parents to take charge of readapting the child’s food, but there are some tips that can help in this process.

How to improve your child’s nutrition

Parents must accompany and encourage the child in the new diet, providing healthy habits. Some tips can help parents with this task, such as:

  • Avoid processed foods full of sugar and fats, such as crackers and frozen meals;
  • Buy a variety of fruits and vegetables, giving preference to citrus fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw;
  • Vegetables that need to be cooked should be steamed, without salt and with a small amount of oil;
  • Do not offer soft drinks, always preferring to offer water or natural juices;
  • Buy a child-sized plate;
  • Do not let the child become distracted during the meal, such as eating while watching television;
  • Be firm if the child refuses to eat;
  • Make food attractive;
  • Set an example.

How to make your child spend more energy

Encouraging children to play sports and play prevents them from maintaining a sedentary lifestyle. The practice of physical exercises helps in the expenditure of energy and, consequently, to maintain a healthy weight. To do this, you can apply these tips:

  • Limit the use of computers, televisions and video games to 1 hour a day;
  • Look for activities that the child likes to practice;
  • Practice outdoor family activities;
  • Allow the child to try various activities.

Complications of childhood obesity

Childhood obesity can increase your risk or cause a variety of health problems in the short and long term.

In short time

  • Asthma and sleep apnea;
  • Orthopedic problems;
  • Liver dysfunction due to accumulation of fat;
  • Inflammation and formation of stones in the gallbladder;
  • Acne;
  • Diaper rash and dermatitis;
  • Migraine;
  • Depression;
  • Increased cholesterol levels;
  • Behavior problems;
  • Low self-esteem.


  • Diabetes;
  • Hypertension;
  • Thrombosis;
  • Leak;
  • Coronary disease;
  • Angina and heart attack;
  • Gout;
  • Osteoarthritis;
  • Arthrosis;
  • Depression and chronic anxiety;
  • Decreased life expectancy.

How to prevent childhood obesity?

To prevent childhood obesity, one should start with pregnancy, taking into account genetic and prenatal issues. Is important:

  • Maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy;
  • Control weight gain during pregnancy.

After birth, parents should encourage and offer a healthy lifestyle to the child, avoiding industrialized foods, choosing foods prepared at home, low in sugar and fat, practicing physical activities and encouraging the child to do the same.

It is important for parents to set an example, as in this phase the child has as a reference those who live with him daily, repeating his actions and habits.

In addition, parents should also:

  • Schedule annual follow-up visits for your children;
  • Avoid using food as a reward or punishment for the child’s attitudes;
  • Emphasize the positive side of good nutrition;
  • Have patience;
  • Take responsibility for your own weight.

Childhood obesity is one of the most recurrent health problems in the world and goes far beyond aesthetics, and can affect the child’s physical and emotional health. Share this article with your friends and family so that they also know the ways to prevent and treat obesity!