Nearly 20% of children in the US ages 6 to 19 are obese, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. That's more than three times the percentage from 1970.
Several serious health problems are associated with childhood obesity, writes John Mersch, MD, FAAP, who practices pediatric medicine.
Children who are obese are more likely to have asthma and sleep apnea, Dr. Mersch says. This can lead to additional problems including bedwetting and poor school performance.
Children with obesity also risk serious bone and joint disorders like bowed legs and unstable hips. Particularly serious is the slippage of a growth plate in the hip bone called "slipped capital femoral epiphysis," Dr. Mersch says.
Liver disease, heart attacks, and strokes are more common in children with obesity, he says, and some obesity-related cancers become more likely as well, including cancers of the liver, breast, colon, kidney, gallbladder, and endometrium.
In addition to the physical health dangers, obesity seriously damages a child's self-esteem, Dr. Mersch says. Lower self-esteem can be reinforced by teasing and bullying at school, and media depictions of normal or ideal bodies may decrease self-esteem as well.
The doctor says children with obesity can be treated, but drugs and surgical interventions should be reserved for only the most severe cases. He said the key to treatment is finding a healthy diet approach your child can embrace lifelong.
"Simply put, consume fewer calories and use more up," he said.
This approach works best before your child hits the teen years, Dr. Mersch said. At age 4, children with obesity stand only a 20% risk of growing up to become obese adults. But teens with obesity have an 80% risk of becoming adults with obesity, he says.