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Childhood obesity: Warning signs

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Everyone loves a chubby baby, and there’s probably nothing cuter on your toddler than his round protruding tummy. But at a certain point beyond toddlerhood, what you might be appreciating as “good” baby fat has evolved into excessive body fat that could lead to childhood obesity. So how do you tell the difference, and when do you start to get worried?

Let’s start with a disclaimer: All children are different, and your child’s pediatrician knows him or her best. So if you’re truly concerned, have the doctor take a look. Your doctor will most likely assess your child’s BMI (body mass index) in the context of his or her build. (Note that the BMI scale for children, unlike the one used for adults, takes into account the age and sex of the child.) In general, if your child’s BMI-for-age/gender is in the 95th percentile or above, he or she is considered obese.

Beyond that, one of the most important things to know about childhood obesity is that it is almost always caused by lifestyle, not by disease. (For a good summary, check out what the Mayo Clinic has to say.) Put simply, it’s usually a case of eating too much of the wrong kids of foods and not getting enough exercise. So if you are worried, you can start by looking at your child’s diet. Does he or she drink sugary juices or sodas regularly? Eat deep-fried, greasy, or heavily processed foods? Do you eat fast foods on the run, and/or have snacks started to replace regular meals? If so, you might need to do a dietary overhaul at your house. Kids eat sugary or salty foods with empty calories because they taste good, but if you don’t offer them, they won’t have an opportunity to eat them.

Next, how are your kids doing on exercise? Are they getting at least an hour a day to run around in the fresh air? If they’re spending more than an hour per day in front of the TV or computer, they’re at risk of turning into couch potatoes.

Also, are they getting a good night’s sleep? Some studies point to a lack of sleep as a factor in childhood obesity. Experts aren’t exactly sure how sleep affects weight, but it’s possible that more awake time means more time for eating, and less time spent sleeping means your children are drowsier or more inactive during the day. Plus, it’s possible that the kids who are running around getting exercise all day are so physically tired that they sleep more. So if your child under 5 is getting less than 11 hours (total) sleep per day and your age 5 to 10-year-old is getting less than 10 hours, it may be time to assess his or her sleep/exercise habits.

Last, are you setting the right example? One of the greatest risk factors in childhood obesity is having parents who are themselves overweight. So make sure you’re doing your part by eating right and getting out and exercising rather than spending time in front of the TV or on the computer (ahem!). Now get out there, get moving, and have fun with your kids!