Childhood Obesity: Frequently asked questions

The problem of childhood obesity
Childhood obesity is a serious health problem that affects many children.  Childhood obesity often continues into adulthood and results in health complications. Obesity has been associated with several medical problems such as worsening of asthma, early onset of diabetes, serious injuries and fractured bone, and early heart disease. 

How do you know if your child is overweight or obese?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established guidelines to determine whether a child is considered overweight or obese, based on a body mass index (BMI) for age and sex.  The BMI uses height and weight to determine overweight and obesity.  If you child’s BMI is greater then 85 percent of children who are same age and same sex (boy or girl), then your child is overweight.  If the BMI is greater than 95 percent, then your child is obese.  If you know your child’s height and weight, you can find out if your child is overweight.  You can go to and find out where your child is falls terms of weight status.

How obese are American children?
As many as 1 in 3 school aged children between 12 and 18 years of age are overweight, but the problem starts as early as pre-school age.  The map below shows the percent of pre-school children (ages 2-5 years) in each part of the United States that are considered obese.  The Washington, DC, area falls in the greater than 20 percent obesity rate for pre-school children.  The map below was published by the CDC in 2008.

What causes a child to become overweight or obese?
While some children gain weight because of medical reasons such as under active thyroid gland, or other diseases, the majority of children start becoming overweight, because they take in more calories than they use.  Childhood overweight and obesity is a result of genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.

Factors that cause a child to be overweight or obese

Contributing Factor Effect on weight
Genetic Factors
Generally, it is not thought that genetics alone are responsible for childhood obesity, because the rates of childhood obesity have increased significantly in the last few years without any major change in genetics.  Genetics may play a role in the ability to gain weight in some children
Behavioral factors
Behaviors are thought to be an important part of becoming overweight or obese. Eating behaviors such as large portion size, unhealthy food types, eating meals away from home, and drinking sugar-rich beverages are some of the contributors to becoming overweight.  Physical activity, or lack of it, is an important factor in determining how many calories are spent or stored in the body as fat.  Children are just not as active as they used to be.  Video games, televisions, computers, and mobile devices have replaced outdoor play and group sports.  This is an important problem in childhood obesity.  Social norms also contribute to this problem.  If your child eats the same way as his/her friends and has similar body type, you may not think of him/her as overweight or obese.  If the society is overweight as a group, it is difficult to identify one child as being overweight. Parenting is another important contributor to childhood obesity.  If a parent or both parents are overweight, the risk of a child becoming overweight or obese increases greatly.  Making an effort to lose weight yourself, if you are overweight and monitor your child’s eating behavior is an important behavior change in helping your child’s weight
Environmental factors
Children are greatly influenced by their environment and by other children.  What children do at school, daycare, after school programs, and in the community affects what they eat and their physical activity level.  Children spend long hours away from home and are learning some of their behaviors outside of the home.

How can you prevent your child from becoming overweight or obese?

Keeping a child’s weight in the healthy range is a matter of balance between the amount of calories consumed and the amount of calories used.  If a child eats more than he/she uses, the result is weight gain.  From an early age, children can learn to like or dislike certain foods based on what is normally eaten in the house.  You can get a 2 year old child to like fruits and vegetables, but if a child has reached adolescent age, it will be difficult to get him/her interested in fruits and vegetables for the first time.  The balance between diet and physical activity is important in maintaining a healthy weight.  Some helpful advice for a healthier lifestyle would be:

  • Include vegetables and fruits in every meal
  • Include variety in food types consumed
  • Avoid sugar containing beverages as much as possible
  • Have meals as a family
  • Look at the labels and nutritional information
  • Have home made meals instead of refined and fast foods when possible
  • Substitute sugar-filled and fat filled snacks with fruit snacks
  • Have your child’s pediatrician involved in healthy weight monitoring
  • Include the entire family in healthy lifestyle behavior
  • At least 30 minutes of daily physical activity

Helpful resources and links

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