Childhood Obesity: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Overweight Kids

We feel powerless when it comes to stopping our children from getting fatter.

Recent research in the US on infants and toddlers found that almost a third were obese at the age of two.

This statistic may be shocking, but the long-term effects are more worrying.

The BMI of an infant is one of most accurate predictors for obesity later in life. Experts estimate that by the time children begin school it’s too late to change patterns that lead to obesity, poor mental and physical health and even a lifetime of poor health.

Is childhood obesity a part of the future for our children?

It’s not true.

We explore the causes of childhood obesity and how you can prevent your child from becoming obese.

Obesity has become more “normal” than ever

Have you ever noticed that the archetypal “funny, fat character” has disappeared from TV screens?

We’re all familiarized with these characters. The Truffle Shuffling in The Goonies. Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard. South Park’s Cartman. Could the disappearance these tropes indicate that obesity has become normalised?

Stats confirm this.

Childhood obesity has reached a record high

Between 1980 and 2000, obesity among children and adolescents in the United States tripled [3]. The fifth leading cause for death in the world is obesity [4].

If you think that larger kids have a little extra “puppy fat”, then you’re wrong.

It is more likely that obese children will become obese adults [5]. This trend is causing more and more harm to younger people. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, breast cancer…

Problems don’t only arise in old age. Childhood health issues such as early puberty among children as young eight years old [6] are thought to be caused by obesity.

Children with obesity are also more likely to suffer from sleep apnoea (sleep deprivation), gallstones, hepatitis and intracranial pressure (an increase in pressure around the head).

The life expectancy of children is also declining.

Children today are expected to live longer than their parents

For the first time since over 200 years, American kids have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

Please read that sentence again.

Despite the advances in medicine and science, children today are expected to live longer than their predecessors, even though food is more readily available than ever.

The downsides of the e-cigarette don’t end there.

Your children will likely perform worse on multiple indicators if they are overweight or obese.

1. Bullying is more common in children

The studies have shown a strong correlation between the BMI of adolescents and their rates of physical and psychological aggression by their peers. These aggressions ranged from withdrawing friends to overt kicking and pushing.

2. Mental health problems are more common in these people

Children who are obese have a 33-43% higher risk of developing anxiety or depression in later life. It is made more difficult by the fact anxiety and depression can lead to additional psychological stress, making weight-loss programs hard to implement. It is because psychological and pharmaceutical interventions are often given priority over diet and exercise interventions in mental health conditions.

3. The ageing process will be accelerated in these animals

Have you ever heard of a child with the arteries as a 45-year old? If your child is overweight or obese, you could leave them with a legacy.

In a US study, the inter-wall thickness of neck arteries was measured in 70 obese children. The study showed that the vascular age of obese children was 30 years older than what they actually were.

Children’s cardiovascular systems also seemed to be aging prematurely. Triglycerides, and cholesterol levels were similar to those in middle-aged adults [11].

Why is the health of children in such a crisis?

This is where things get complicated.

Why are children getting fatter?

We’ve heard all the excuses… “it is puppy fat”, “he has big bones!” and “it is genetic!”

Sugar-coating does not help the current generation of children avoid hospital visits, poor mental well-being and a decline in independence.

While genetics can play a role, they do not tell the entire story. Two generations ago, obesity as a major health issue was non-existent.

In fact, adult obesity was first studied in the 1960s, while childhood obesity wasn’t even considered until the 1980s.

What’s new in the last 30 years?

There are several causes that may overlap [14], such as:

1. Overweight parents

The greatest lifestyle factor that sets kids up for failure is parental obesity. Children with an overweight father are 14 times as likely to become obese themselves [16].

It has been shown that maternal obesity is a significant determinant for the health of children in childhood and adulthood. If a mother is overweight, the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, strokes, type 2 diabetics, asthma, and a reduced cognitive performance increases.

2. More screen time means less activity

There’s no denying that we spend more time in front of screens, whether it’s the TV, our smart phones, or the latest video games. Kids are not exempt.

Researchers believe that while there is a strong link between screen time and increased obesity [18, [19], this is more of a contributing factor than a cause [20, [21].

It’s more likely that obese kids are drawn to these types of activities and they take up time that could be spent on physical activity.

3. Cost of Healthy Eating

It’s not surprising that people on low incomes struggle to buy nutritious food.

Cost of single-ingredient, nutrient-dense foods has risen disproportionally compared to unhealthy, heavily-processed foods over the past few decades [23]. According to a recent study, between 1990 and 2012 the average price of fruits and vegetables rose by 7%. However, junk food prices actually dropped by 15%. This figure will likely be higher today.

This is in line with other studies that show that children living in the poorest areas of the country are twice as likely to become obese than those who live in the least-deprived areas.

This all sounds like a grim legacy for future generations. Is this vision of the future inevitable or not?


Obesity can be prevented and reversed.

We owe current and future generations, both on a societal and parental level, the responsibility to make some major changes.

What will we do to combat childhood obesity?

The multifaceted problem of obesity in children cannot be solved by a single solution.

You can do a lot as a parent in order to ensure that your child has the best chance at a happy, healthy life.

1. You are a role model

You set an example for your kids. This is supported by study after study.

It has been shown that parental influence is a major risk factor in childhood obesity. Your children are absorbing and internalising all of these factors, whether it is the food you keep at home, your attitudes and habits towards exercise and eating, or how you prepare and eat your meals.

You must be the first to take responsibility for your child’s weight.

Here’s how.

2. The journey begins even before the child is born

From the moment your child is conceived, their health will be shaped.

You could be programming your children to dislike fruits and vegetables if your diet is dominated by ultra-processed food, minimal vegetables, and low nutrients.

Children may be affected by the mothers’ lifestyle and nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as well early childhood. There is an increased risk for diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease [27-31].

It is becoming increasingly clear that the maternal hormonal and nutritional environment can have a permanent impact on our appetites and energy expenditures [32]. This phenomenon is known as “early metabolic programming” of long-term disease and health. It may be the reason why children who are breastfed are less likely than those who are not to be overweight [33, 34].

What you feed them from the very beginning will also influence what they eat (or don’t eat) later [35-37].

Taste preference is one of the many factors that affect children’s eating habits [38]. Early programming of bitter tastes associated with dark-green vegetables could occur.

Introduce your child to high-quality foods that are unprocessed as soon as possible. This will increase the likelihood of them having a lower BMI in childhood and adolescence. [40]. Think of a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, proteins of high quality, and healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds and oily fish.

3. Start at home

If you don’t make it better at home, chances are it won’t get any better at school.

Numerous studies have tried to implement dietary and physical activity interventions in schools, but with little or no success [41].

The first step is to educate yourself.

4. Early childhood exercise can get kids motivated

Early on, you can help your child develop a healthy lifestyle by making exercise enjoyable and engaging.

According to studies, active children are more likely than sedentary ones to become active adults. A study found that children are more likely to spend time outdoors if they have more outdoor toys at their disposal [42].

5. Enjoy your food!

It’s easier to say than do! It’s not surprising that the way you approach nutrition at home will be crucial to keeping your children a healthy weight.

According to some research, four out of five parents allow their children to choose what they want for the majority of meals [43]. Let’s be honest… how many kids do you know would prefer grilled vegetables and chicken over a hamburger and fries, if they were left to choose?

Families are also eating out more often due to the hectic modern lifestyle [44]. In restaurants and similar businesses, the average child consumes 25% of his or her total daily calories [45,46].

Most fast food chain menu items are higher in calories than recommended for children. In one case, the main course equated between 100 and 270% the recommended energy intake for the meal depending on the age of the child [47].

The likelihood of a normal BMI or body composition increases with more frequent home-cooked meal consumption.

In a UK cohort study, the frequency of self-reported home-cooked main meals was compared with obesity among adults aged 29 to 64 years. Home cooked meals were consumed more than five days a week by those who consume less than three. This group was 28% less likely than the others to be overweight or have excess body fat.

Encourage your kids to join you in the kitchen and create fun, delicious and colourful meals. This will help them get hooked on natural, fresh flavours without the e-numbers and saturated fats.

Take-home message

Children are becoming fatter, less healthy and unhappy. There are many reasons to be concerned about your child’s weight, despite what the media might say.

The statistics of today are alarming, but the effects they will have in future decades may be even worse.

There are many possible causes for childhood obesity, but there is no doubt that adults have the responsibility to reverse the tide.