Skip to main content

How to Prevent Childhood Obesity in America

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedFebruary 29, 2024

Childhood obesity in America is a growing concern with detrimental effects on psychological and cardiovascular health, posing a threat to present and future generations.

In 2020, 39 million children under 5 were classified as overweight or obese. This alarming trend raises critical questions about the factors contributing to this crisis and, more importantly, how we can address and prevent it.

In this article, you will learn about the underlying reasons behind childhood obesity in America and explore effective interventions and strategies to combat this epidemic and foster healthier lives for our children.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • Childhood obesity is a pressing issue in America, and it requires immediate attention to ensure a healthier future for millions of children at risk.
  • Childhood obesity is having a Body Mass Index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile. It can lead to physical and psychological health issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, low self-esteem, and depression.
  • Childhood obesity poses significant physical and psychological health risks, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and psychosocial effects like low self-esteem and depression.
  • To prevent childhood obesity, promote healthy behaviors early, including regular physical activity, balanced diets, and portion control.
  • Limiting sugary and calorie-dense foods, educating children and parents about nutrition, and encouraging family meals are crucial strategies in preventing childhood obesity.
  • Medical support should be a last resort, focusing on lifestyle modifications, professional guidance, and, in severe cases, a multidisciplinary approach involving behavioral counseling and nutritional guidance.
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Virtual weight loss solution
A personalized GLP-1 medication program delivered to you via our partner Korb Health
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • Free consultation; program starts at $269/mo
  • Checkmark Inside Circle.Customized online program and wellness coaching
  • Prescription medications and supplies shipped to your door

What is Childhood Obesity?

Childhood obesity is a complex health issue when a child's weight surpasses the healthy range relative to age and height.

Childhood obesity, according to the CDC, is a BMI at or above the 95th percentile on growth charts for children. Since children's body composition changes as they age and differs between males and females, BMI is calculated differently for them than for adults.

Categories for BMI

BMI measures body fat based on height and weight. It is commonly used to determine whether someone is underweight, normal, overweight, or obese. Below are the categories for BMI:

  • Underweight: BMI less than the 5th percentile
  • Healthy Weight: BMI ranging from the 5th percentile to below the 85th percentile
  • Overweight: BMI ranging from above the 85th percentile to below the 95th percentile
  • Obesity: BMI at or exceeding the 95th percentile
  • Severe Obesity: BMI at or above 120% of the 95th percentile or 35 kg/m² or greater

How To Determine Your Child’s BMI

Determining your child's BMI can be done by following these simple steps:

  1. Measure your child's height and weight: To measure weight, use kilograms since it is the standard unit of measurement in most countries. For height, use meters instead of centimeters or inches. To measure height, ask your child to stand against a wall and mark the top of their head with a pencil.
  2. Calculate the BMI: Divide your child's weight (in kilograms) by the square of their height (in meters). The formula is BMI = weight (kg) / height (m)².

For example, if your child is 10 years old, weighs 46.2 kg, and stands 56 inches (or 1.4 meters) tall, their BMI would be 23.6 kg/m2. Based on the BMI-for-age percentile, this puts them in the 95th percentile, indicating that they have obesity.

Why is Childhood Obesity A Problem?

Childhood obesity is a pressing issue in public health as it can lead to several health complications, including diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Addressing this concern as early as possible is essential to mitigate the risk of long-term health consequences.

Additionally, obese children may experience social and emotional problems, such as low self-esteem and depression. Childhood obesity can also have long-term effects, as obese children are more likely to become obese adults.

According to data from the CDC, the prevalence of childhood obesity in America among children and adolescents aged 2-19 years was 19.7% from 2017 to 2020.

This means that approximately 14.7 million children and adolescents in the US were affected by obesity during this timeframe. Age groups also break down the prevalence rates:

  • 12.7% for 2- to 5-year-olds
  • 20.7% for 6- to 11-year-olds
  • 22.2% for 12- to 19-year-olds

Here are more reasons why childhood obesity is a concern:

1. Health Impacts

Childhood obesity can have severe health implications affecting various body parts. It is known to be associated with numerous health issues, such as:

2. Psychosocial Effects

Obese children often face stigmatization and bullying, significantly impacting their mental and emotional state. A previous Study showed that 16% of boys aged 11-15 with obesity were bullied by schoolmates, compared to 9% of healthy-weight boys. The social and psychological effects of this kind of mistreatment can be severe and long-lasting.

Some common social effects include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor Self-confidence
  • Negative body image
  • Emotional distress

Psychological consequences include:

3. Academic Performance

Childhood obesity has been found to have a negative impact on academic performance. According to studies conducted across 32 countries, boys and girls who maintain a healthy weight have a 13% higher likelihood of reporting good school performance than their obese peers. The likelihood is 12% higher for boys and 11% for girls.

Moreover, research has shown that overweight and obese children tend to miss more school days, with a 36% and 37% increase, respectively, and are at a higher risk of academic underachievement.

4. Long-term Health Issues

While some physical health conditions associated with childhood obesity may disappear when a child reaches a healthier weight, others can have lasting effects into adulthood. This can increase the likelihood of:

  • Chronic diseases
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Premature death

What Causes Childhood Obesity In America?

Various factors can lead to childhood obesity, such as medical or genetic reasons. However, in most cases, unhealthy eating habits and insufficient physical activity are the primary causes.

There are several reasons why an increasing number of children are experiencing obesity. Some of these reasons may include:

Lifestyle Factors

Children's lifestyles are composed of three main components directly related to obesity: technology, nutrition, and physical activity. Below are detailed reasons why these three factors contribute to obesity:

5. Technology

Higher rates of technology use among children have been found to contribute to obesity, as it often leads to increased calorie consumption and reduced physical activity. Nowadays, children are being exposed to technology at younger ages.

Studies have shown that children who watch TV for 5 hours a day are 8.3 times more likely to be obese than those who watch TV for 2 hours or less a day. The additional time spent on technology increases the time a child spends sitting instead of being active.

When children are on technology, they consume more calories than they burn and exercise less, which can lead to childhood obesity.

6. Nutrition

Technology has significantly reduced the time costs for food production in fast-food businesses. Unfortunately, this has led to a massive increase in fast food consumption by children in the US, resulting in a reduced intake of nutrients in their diets.

According to a fast food survey conducted by the CDC from 2015 to 2018, 36.3% of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 eat fast food daily.

The survey also revealed that 14.4% of their total calorie consumption comes from fast food, which has increased by 4%.

As a result, children who eat fast food often consume processed foods that contain high amounts of fat, carbohydrates, and sugars.

7. Physical Activity

Childhood obesity often results from a lack of physical activity, as children consume more calories than they burn through exercise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to this problem by reducing opportunities for physical activity. Recent statistics show that in 2020, 28.6% of children aged 6-18 engaged in significantly less physical activity than in previous years.

Genetic Factors

While diet and lifestyle choices are often blamed for childhood obesity in the US, genetics may also play a significant role. According to studies, genetics could determine up to 30%-70% of the likelihood of developing obesity during childhood.

This means some children may be more predisposed to gaining weight due to inherited traits. It is essential to consider this factor when addressing childhood obesity and creating effective prevention and treatment strategies.

How to Prevent Childhood Obesity in America?

Preventing childhood obesity is crucial in America to avoid complications that may arise in adulthood. Although not all obese children will remain obese in the future, the likelihood of this depends on the child's age.

The US has implemented three interventions that have proven effective in reducing childhood obesity. These interventions include the following:

  • Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Excise Tax (SSB Excise Tax) imposes an excise tax of one cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages and has prevented 575,936 cases of childhood obesity.
  • The Restaurant Menu Calorie Labeling intervention implements calorie labeling on restaurant menus and has prevented 41,015 cases of childhood obesity.
  • The School Meals Intervention has implemented improved nutrition standards for school meals and has prevented 1,816,000 cases of childhood obesity.

Moreover, there are three levels of prevention involved in addressing childhood obesity, which are crucial because they provide a comprehensive approach to tackling the issue from various angles. The three levels of prevention involved are:

  1. Primordial Prevention: Focus on maintaining a healthy weight and normal BMI throughout childhood and adolescence. This involves promoting healthy lifestyle habits from an early age.
  2. Primary Prevention: Aim to prevent overweight children from becoming obese. Encourage healthy eating habits, regular physical activity, and a supportive environment at home and school.
  3. Secondary Prevention: Directed towards treating existing obesity to reduce associated health risks and reverse obesity when possible.

To know more about strategies that can contribute to preventing childhood obesity, let’s explore the sections below.

1. Behavioral Changes

Childhood obesity can lead to various behavioral problems, such as difficulty concentrating, poor social skills, and low self-esteem. Therefore, addressing this problem early on is essential to prevent further complications.

One effective way to promote healthy behaviors in children is to encourage regular physical activity and limit sedentary behavior, such as excessive screen time. These healthy habits can be instilled during childhood and significantly impact a child's health in the long run.

Research has consistently shown that instilling healthy behaviors in children can greatly improve their overall well-being. Therefore, parents and caregivers need to be aware of the risks associated with childhood obesity and take necessary steps to prevent it.

2. Healthy Diet

Most American children consume unhealthy, processed foods that lack essential nutrients, which can lead to various health issues.

However, the solution to this problem is simple - a well-rounded diet incorporating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

Encouraging kids to try different colors and types of fruits and veggies can be a fun way to introduce them to new flavors and textures.

Additionally, choosing whole grains over refined grains for sustained energy and incorporating lean proteins such as lean meats, fish, and tofu can aid muscle growth.

Healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and olive oil can also aid brain development and overall health. Promoting a healthy diet can help children grow and develop into healthy adults.

3. Promoting Physical Activity for Children and Adolescents

Engaging in physical activity has numerous benefits, such as maintaining a healthy weight, developing strong bones, muscles, and cardiovascular health, and reducing body fat to minimize the risk of being overweight or obese.

A study on 1,640 children aged 3-15 revealed that children who participated in at least 60 minutes of physical activity had a 7% lower risk of becoming overweight or obese. Considering these benefits, promoting physical activity for different age groups is crucial.

Here's how to promote physical activity for different age groups:

Preschool Children

For preschool-aged children (ages 3 to 5), focus on unstructured play and movement. Engage them in activities that allow them to explore their surroundings, use their imagination, and develop fundamental movement skills. Here are some ideas:

  • Active Play: Promote team sports and individual activities like bike riding, running, jumping jacks, cycling, and swimming.
  • Outdoor Exploration: Take them to parks, playgrounds, and nature trails where they can climb, swing, slide, and interact with their environment.
  • Dance and Music: Play music and dance together. Dancing is a fun way to get moving and develop rhythm.

School-age Children and Adolescents

For school-age children (ages 6 to 12) and adolescents (ages 13 to 18), aim for at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. This can include both structured activities and free play. Here are some suggestions:

  • Sports and Games: Encourage participation in team sports like soccer, basketball, and volleyball, as well as individual activities like swimming, cycling, and running.
  • Active Commuting: If feasible, encourage walking or biking to school. It's a great way to incorporate physical activity into the daily routine.
  • After-School Activities: Enroll them in classes or clubs that involve physical activity, such as dance, martial arts, or gymnastics.
  • Limit Screen Time: Set limits on screen time for activities like watching TV and playing video games. Encourage them to spend more time outdoors and engage in active play.
  • Family Activities: Plan family outings that involve physical activity, such as hiking, playing sports, or going for a bike ride together.

4. Limiting Sugar and Calorie Intake

Limiting the consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and sugary drinks is an important strategy for preventing childhood obesity.

A useful approach to help children and their families make healthier food choices is the "Traffic Light Diet." This method categorizes foods based on their nutritional content, making it easier to identify which foods to include in the diet and which ones to limit.

Here's how the Traffic Light Diet works:

  • Green Light Foods includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, while
  • Yellow Light Foods includes moderately nutritious options like whole-grain bread, pasta, and brown rice.
  • On the other hand, Red Light Foods are high in calories, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium and should be avoided or consumed in moderation.


Preventing childhood obesity in America requires a comprehensive and integrated approach that includes promoting healthy eating habits, consuming well-balanced meals with various fruits and vegetables, and engaging in regular physical activity.

By cultivating a positive relationship with food, encouraging an active lifestyle, and creating supportive environments, we can effectively address childhood obesity and pave the way for a healthier future for upcoming generations.

FAQs about Preventing Childhood Obesity In America

What are the statistics and facts regarding obesity in America?

Obesity in America has reached alarming levels, with approximately 41.9% of adults considered obese. These statistics highlight a significant health concern, emphasizing the need for awareness and action.

What is the relationship between obesity and nutrition in America?

Nutrition plays a crucial role in the obesity epidemic in America. Poor dietary choices, lack of access to healthy foods, and an abundance of processed foods contribute to the high rates of obesity.

What are the causes and effects of obesity in America?

Causes of obesity in America include unhealthy diets, sedentary lifestyles, and genetic factors. The effects encompass a range of health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, and mental health challenges.

Is there a connection between poverty and obesity in America?

Yes, there is a notable connection between poverty and obesity in America. Limited access to nutritious foods and the prevalence of inexpensive, calorie-dense options contribute to higher obesity rates in low-income communities.

How is fast food related to child obesity in America?

Fast food consumption is a significant contributor to childhood obesity in America. Many fast food options are high in calories, sugar, and unhealthy fats, leading to the rise of childhood obesity in America.

Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Virtual weight loss solution
A personalized GLP-1 medication program delivered to you via our partner Korb Health
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • Free consultation; program starts at $269/mo
  • Checkmark Inside Circle.Customized online program and wellness coaching
  • Prescription medications and supplies shipped to your door