Childhood Obesity Symptoms & Causes

These days, the increasing rate of obesity among America’s kids is a pressing concern. The first lady, Michelle Obama, has even taken on the issue with her “Let’s Move” campaign, whose goal is to end childhood obesity in the next generation. But what exactly does it mean to be an obese child?


What are the causes of childhood obesity?

There are many reasons why a child may be obese, including medical or genetic ones. In most cases, though, children are overweight because they eat unhealthful foods and lead a sedentary lifestyle. If you think your child is overweight because of a medical condition, consult your pediatrician who can perform tests to check.

Reasons why more and more children are becoming obese include:

  • Behavioral factors: eating bigger portions, eating foods that are calorie-rich but nutrient poor (junk foods), spending lots of time in front of the television or computer and spending too little time doing physical activities
  • Environmental factors: easy access to high-calorie junk foods, few opportunities for physical activity, lack of parks and playgrounds in some communities
  • Genetic factors: A child is at increased risk for obesity when at least one parent is obese. However, genes do not necessarily mean a child is destined to be overweight—there are several steps a child can take to lower his risk.
  • Medications: steroids, some antidepressants and others
  • Medical conditions: Genetic syndromes like Prader-Willi, and hormonal conditions like hypothyroidism are among the medical disorders that can cause obesity

The “body weight set point theory” suggests that weight is determined by complex interactions of genetic, hormonal and metabolic factors

How common is childhood obesity?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 17 percent of 2- to 19-year-old American children are obese, as measured by their body mass index (BMI) percentile. The rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

Risk factors

How is a child’s risk for obesity determined?

There are several tools your doctor might use to determine if your child is at risk for obesity, including:

  • plotting your child’s BMI percentile yearly to see if there's a sudden increase
  • identifying babies who gain weight too rapidly in infancy; studies show that these babies are at risk for becoming overweight as they get older
  • birth weight and gestational diabetes: these factors may increase a child’s risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life
  • a family history of obesity, type II diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertensionsleep apnea and early heart attack: these factors can also put a child at increased risk for obesity and associated medical complications


What are the symptoms of childhood obesity?

Each child may experience different symptoms but some of the most common include:

  • Appearance: stretch marks on hips and abdomen; dark, velvety skin (known as acanthosis nigricans) around the neck and in other areas; fatty tissue deposition in breast area (an especially troublesome issue for boys)
  • Psychological : teasing and abuse; poor self-esteem; eating disorders
  • Pulmonary: shortness of breath when physically active; sleep apnea
  • Gastroenterological : constipation, gastroesophageal reflux
  • Reproductive: early puberty and irregular menstrual cycles in girls; delayed puberty in boys; genitals may appear disproportionately small in males
  • Orthopedic: flat feet; knock-knees; dislocated hip


What are the long-term consequences of childhood obesity?

  • increased risk of being overweight or obese as an adult
  • increased risk for medical problems such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, reproductive problems and some cancers
  • psychosocial disabilities, including social isolation, depression