Obesity in children is on the rise. In the United States, almost nine million children and adolescents age six to 19 are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The percentage of overweight children age six to 11 more than doubled from seven percent in 1980 to more than 15 percent today, while the percentage of overweight adolescents age 12 to 19 tripled in the same period, from five percent to 15 percent. The problem is particularly prevalent among minority groups and those with lower family incomes.

Being overweight isn't simply a result of eating too much — biochemical and genetic factors can also play a role. That said, many children don't meet recommended guidelines for healthy eating. It's estimated that almost 80 percent of young people don't eat the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Children often don't eat enough fiber, which may help with weight control. And many consume considerably more sugar, fat and calories than they need. Sugary beverages, such as soda and juice, add considerable calories and are partly to blame. In addition, many children don't get enough exercise.

Obesity increases a child's risk for a number of diseases and conditions, as well as the risk that the child will be overweight as an adult. Moreover, unhealthy diet and physical activity patterns are known risk factors for the three leading causes of death in adults: cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Prevention is the key to combating the childhood obesity epidemic.

The causes of obesity are complex, and can include genetic, biological, behavioral, nutritional and cultural factors. The root causes are excess consumption of food, a lack of physical activity or both. Obesity occurs when a person eats more calories than his or her body burns up.

A child with one obese parent has a 50 percent chance of being obese. When both parents are obese, their children have an 80 percent chance of obesity.

Many genetic and environmental factors contribute to the number of calories people eat and burn up, which is why weight loss and gain varies for different people.

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Your child's primary care pediatrician evaluates your child's weight during regular check-ups and office visits. Weight issues rarely sprout rapidly but rather develop over time. If you think your child has a weight problem, make an appointment with his or her pediatrician or primary care doctor.

There are two main tools doctors use to assess a child's weight:

  • Growth Charts — These charts are used throughout a child's development to assess growth in both height and weight, as compared to other children the same age, and to watch how a child's body changes over time. Almost every doctor uses the same growth charts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is based on the measurements of thousands of children.
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With some children, especially if they are still growing taller, it's more important to stabilize weight and allow them to grow into their weight — they don't necessarily need to lose weight. In all cases, however, the earlier a child is identified as being overweight or at risk, the easier it is to treat. Because it's hard to permanently change dietary and exercise habits, it's essential to do something sooner rather than later.

Obese children need a thorough medical evaluation by a pediatrician or family doctor to assess their family history as well as their diet and exercise routines. First, the doctor will check for genetic and biochemical disorders related to obesity, such as Prader-Willi Syndrome and other genetic disorders, and hypothyroidism and other hormonal disorders.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

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