What is Childhood Obesity? - Causes, Statistics & Prevention

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

You may have seen headlines concerning the steady rise of childhood obesity, but do you know what the term means or what causes it? This lesson takes a closer look at the issue of childhood obesity and helps you understand causes and prevention.

A Visit to the Pediatrician

Mrs. Jones is bringing her 4-year old, Jake, to the doctor today. At the last visit, the doctor mentioned that Jake was beginning to near the top of the scale for appropriate weight and suggested several things Mr. and Mrs. Jones could do to improve Jake's health. Today is the check-up to see if their hard work paid off. After the last doctor's visit, Mrs. Jones did a lot of research about childhood obesity. Let's take a look at what she found out.

What Is Childhood Obesity?

For Mrs. Jones and her family, obesity used to be a word used to describe overweight people. In the medical world, the word has a specific meaning. Obesity is being severely overweight and having too much body fat. What exactly does 'severally' refer to? One way used to measure obesity is by using Body Mass Index, or BMI. A BMI measurement uses height and weight to determine how much body fat a person has.

At the last check-up, the doctor measured Jake's BMI. This measurement was a little different for Jake than the one used for adults. For a child, age and gender charts are used to determine BMI categories, since they grow and change quickly and vary between genders. The Center for Disease Control provides charts that the doctor used after measuring Jake's height and weight. For children aged 2-9 there are two categories:

  • Overweight children have a BMI between 85th and 95th percentile when compared to children in their own age and gender bracket.
  • Obese children have a BMI above the 95th percentile.

Sadly, Jake was in the 98th percentile. Jake isn't alone. Adolescent children between 12-19 have the highest statistics; 20.5% obese. Children between ages six and nine have an obesity rate of 17.7%. For Jake's age group, two to five years old, 8.4 are obese. What caused Jake's obesity? The doctor and Mrs. Jones had a long discussion about this.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

Jake's doctor explained how obesity happens in childhood. Usually it's a simple matter of not enough physical activity and unhealthy eating. Sometimes, genetics can play a role, and sometimes there's an underlying medical condition. Jake's obesity was caused by eating too much and moving too little. But why?

Food Choices

Mrs. Jones tries to provide Jake with a healthy diet but also has a weakness for letting him eat what makes him happy - food like cookies, candy and snack foods. The family also eats a lot of fast food. The doctor told Mrs. Jones about a research study on American children and snacking - sometimes it can account for up to 27% of daily caloric intake. That's too much. He also told her that children between two and six eat more snack calories a day than they did 20 years ago.


Like most kids, Jake likes to run and climb, but he also likes to watch TV and play video games with his older brothers. But Mrs. Jones isn't comfortable with her children playing outside in their neighborhood, and she doesn't have much time to take them to the park.

The doctor told Mrs. Jones Jake should be getting at least 60 minutes of activity a day. Jake isn't the only one not moving enough. Children ages six to 11 don't move enough either - only 49% of boys and 35% of girls get an hour a day. And it gets worse as children age - about eight percent of adolescent children get enough physical activity.

Chart showing activity levels in children
childhood obesity


Research studies show that a child born to overweight parents may be genetically predisposed to obesity. To be genetically predisposed means that a child may carry genes more likely to result in being obese.


Finally, the doctor told Mrs. Jones that families with low income have a greater chance of being overweight or obese. Without the proper resources or access to healthy food or physical activity, low income families often struggle with health.

Prevention of Childhood Obesity

Now that Mrs. Jones understands the causes of Jake's obesity, what can she do about it? Getting Jake healthy is Mrs. Jones' top priority. She knows she needs to create healthy eating and activity habits for Jake now so that he'll be armed with them in the future.

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