November 29, 2004

Youngsters Need to Be Evaluated to Determine Who’s Really Overweight

When parents think -- or have been told -- that their child is overweight, they understandably become concerned for their child's health.

Worried parents wonder, "How can I really tell if my child is overweight?""Is this just baby fat that will go away as my child grows?""Should I put my child on a diet?" and "What is the harm of my child being a little heavy?"

All of these questions are perfectly valid, and if you've ever asked or wanted to ask them, you are not alone. The number of overweight children ages 6 to 19 has tripled since 1980.

Children who are truly overweight are at a high risk for remaining that way as adults, and are at risk for bone and joint problems, increased blood pressure and cholesterol, breathing problems, and insulin resistance.

Later in life (and sometimes during childhood), these can develop into debilitating diseases including diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and some types of cancer.

But perhaps the most debilitating effect of being overweight as a child is the social discrimination that is inevitably associated with being "The Fat Kid."

Children are much more brutal to one another than are adults (have you ever jumped up and down and chanted "Fatso!" at one of your co-workers?); such brutality can have lasting effects on one's self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth.

Parents sometimes apply adult standards for body shape to their children, but because children need varying amounts of body fat during different levels of development, these standards are not always appropriate.

The best way to tell if your child truly is overweight is for your child to be assessed by a health professional such as a pediatrician, nurse practitioner, or registered dietitian. These professionals will use growth charts to determine whether a problem exists. The most up-to-date growth charts track a child's weight over time, which allows for the child's developmental stage to be taken into account.

Once your child's weight is assessed by a health professional, you might find that he or she is only slightly overweight. In many cases, your child will be able to "grow" out of it.

On the other hand, you might be informed that your child's weight has increased over time to a point where health could be a concern. If this is the case, the treatment goal should be for the child to maintain his weight or slow down the rate of weight gain.

Weight loss usually is not the recommended treatment for children, and the radical diets that adults sometimes prescribe for themselves should be avoided. Fad diets may alter a child's natural growth pattern, and can do more harm than good.

Seeing that every member of the family eats breakfast, has access to fruits and vegetables, and gets regular physical activity are three simple steps that can make a difference. Adults should aim for 30 minutes of physical activity daily, while children need 60 minutes daily.

Being aware of your family's habits -- and being willing to change them -- is something for which every parent should strive. Awareness is the first step, and the natural progression to action will pay off in the long run.

Steve Baldwin, MS, RD, is a nutrition network project director with the Hawthorne School District's Nutrition Network Center. He can be reached at [email protected]