Childhood Obesity Causes & Consequences
Childhood obesity is a complex health issue. It occurs when a child is well above the normal or healthy weight for his or her age and height. The causes of excess weight gain in young people are similar to those in adults, including factors such as a person’s behavior and genetics.
Our nation’s overall increase in obesity also is influenced by a person’s community. Where people live can affect their ability to make healthy choices.
Behaviors that influence excess weight gain include eating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, not getting enough physical activity, sedentary activities such as watching television or other screen devices, medication use, and sleep routines.
In contrast, consuming a healthy diet and being physically active can help children grow as well as maintain a healthy weight throughout childhood. Balancing energy or calories consumed from foods and beverages with the calories burned through activity plays a role in preventing excess weight gain. In addition, eating healthy and being physically active also has other health benefits and helps to prevent chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Use these resources to eat well and be active!
A healthy diet follows the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that emphasizes eating a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, a variety of lean protein foods, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products. It also limits eating foods and beverages with added sugars, solid fats, or sodium. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends children aged 6 years or older do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
Learn more about Healthy Weight—Finding a Balance
It can be difficult for children and parents to make healthy food choices and get enough physical activity when they are exposed to environments that do not support healthy habits. Places such as child care centers, schools, or communities can affect diet and activity through the foods and drinks they offer and the opportunities for physical activity they provide. Other community factors that affect diet and physical activity include the affordability of healthy food options, peer and social supports, marketing and promotion, and policies that determine how a community is designed.
More Immediate Health Risks
- Obesity during childhood can have a harmful effect on the body in a variety of ways. Children who have obesity are more likely to have(1-7)
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD).
- Increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
- Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea.
- Joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort.
- Fatty liver disease, gallstones, and gastro-esophageal reflux (i.e., heartburn).
Childhood obesity is also related to8-10:
- Psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.
- Low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life.
- Social problems such as bullying and stigma.
Future Health Risks
- Children who have obesity are more likely to become adults with obesity.11 Adult obesity is associated with increased risk of a number of serious health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.12
- If children have obesity, their obesity and disease risk factors in adulthood are likely to be more severe.13
- Cote AT, Harris KC, Panagiotopoulos C, et al. Childhood obesity and cardiovascular dysfunction. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013;62(15):1309–1319.
- Lloyd LJ, Langley-Evans SC, McMullen S. Childhood obesity and risk of the adult metabolic syndrome: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012;36(1):1–11
- Bacha F, Gidding SS. Cardiac abnormalities in youth with obesity and type 2 diabetes. Curr Diab Rep. 2016;16(7):62. doi: 10.1007/s11892-016-0750-6.
- Mohanan S, Tapp H, McWilliams A, Dulin M. Obesity and asthma: pathophysiology and implications for diagnosis and management in primary care. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2014;239(11):1531–40.
- Narang I, Mathew JL. Childhood obesity and obstructive sleep apnea. J Nutr Metab. 2012; doi: 10.1155/2012/134202.
- Pollock NK. Childhood obesity, bone development, and cardiometabolic risk factors. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2015;410:52-63. doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2015.03.016.
- Africa JA, Newton KP, Schwimmer JB. Lifestyle interventions including nutrition, exercise, and supplements for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in children. Dig Dis Sci. 2016;61(5):1375–1386.
- Morrison KM, Shin S, Tarnopolsky M, et al. Association of depression and health related quality of life with body composition in children and youth with obesity. Journal of Affective Disorders 2015;172:18–23.
- Halfon N, Kandyce L, Slusser W. Associations between obesity and comorbid mental health, developmental, and physical health conditions in a nationally representative sample of US children aged 10 to 17. Academic Pediatrics. 2013;13.1:6–13.
- Beck AR. Psychosocial aspects of obesity. NASN Sch Nurse. 2016;31(1):23–27.
- Gordon-Larsen P, The NS, Adair LS. Longitudinal trends in obesity in the United States from adolescence to the third decade of life. Obesity. 2010;18(9):1801-–804.
- Jensen MD, Ryan DH, Apovian CM, et al, for the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines; Obesity Society. 2013 AHA/ACC/TOS guideline for the management of overweight and obesity in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines and The Obesity Society. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(25 Pt B):2985–3023. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2013.11.004.
- Bass R, Eneli I. Severe childhood obesity: an under-recognized and growing health problem. Postgrad Med J. 2015;91(1081):639-45. doi: 10.1136/postgradmedj-2014-133033.
- Page last reviewed: December 15, 2016
- Page last updated: December 15, 2016
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