Overweight in Children

Updated:May 15,2018

Today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese. The prevalence of obesity in children more than tripled from 1971 to 2011.. With good reason, childhood obesity is now the No. 1 health concern among parents in the United States, topping drug abuse and smoking.

Among children today, obesity is causing a broad range of health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels. There are also psychological effects: Obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression.

And excess weight is associated with earlier risk of obesity-related disease and death in adulthood.. Perhaps one of the most sobering statements regarding the severity of the childhood obesity epidemic came from former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who characterized the threat as follows:

“Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents."

What is "overweight" in children?

When defining overweight in children and adolescents, it's important to consider both weight and body composition. Among American children ages 2–19, the following percentages of children are obese, using the 95th percentile or higher of body mass index (BMI) values on the CDC growth chart:

  • For non-Hispanic whites, 17.5 percent of males and 14.7 percent of females.
  • For non-Hispanic blacks, 22.6 percent of males and 24.8 percent of females.
  • For Mexican Americans, 28.9 percent of males and 18.6 percent of females. 

The prevalence of obesity (BMI-for-age values at or above the 95th percentile of the 2000 CDC growth charts in children ages 2-5 increased from 4.8 percent in 1971-74 to 12.1 percent in 2009-2010. For 6–11 year old children, the prevalence of obesity increased from 4.0 percent in 1971–74 to 18.0 percent in 2009–10. The prevalence of overweight in adolescents ages 12–19 increased from 6.1 percent to 18.4 percent.

How do you prevent and treat overweight in children?

Reaching and maintaining an appropriate body weight is important. The healthiest way to change weight is gradually. That's why recommendations that focus on small but permanent changes in eating and physical activity may work better than a series of short-term changes that can't be sustained. The importance of continuing these lifestyle changes well past the initial treatment period should be emphasized to the entire family. Learn our tips for preventing childhood obesity for parents and caretakers of children.

How is body fat measured?

Body mass index (BMI) assesses weight relative to height. It provides a useful screening tool to indirectly measure the amount of body fat for both children and adults, although different measuring tools must be used. The AHA's BMI Calculator for adults should not be used to measure a child's BMI. The CDC has an online BMI calculator for children (link opens in new window) which factors in children’s age, gender, height, and weight.

Learn more:

This content was last reviewed on 08/2014.

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