Several years ago, some New Jersey public schools sent home letters to parents whose kids were considered overweight or obese based on standard height and weight measurements. The so-called “fat letters” stirred up a debate that continues today: What’s the best way to support parents who want to help their kids get to a healthy weight? The answer isn’t simple.
Here’s some good news for NJ: Kids and teens between ages 10 and 17 are last on the list when measuring obesity nationwide, according to 2015 stats from the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH).But doctors in the state acknowledge there’s still a long way to go when it comes to younger kids, and there’s plenty of room for improvement all around.
If you have a kid who’s struggling with his or her weight, the first step to getting help is having a medical professional identify the issue. “There are a number of different ways to diagnose obesity,” says Melissa Woo, MD, Medical Director of the KIDFIT program at Atlantic Health System. “The most common way is to measure Body Mass Index (BMI), which uses a person’s height and weight to estimate how much body fat they have.”
Obesity is defined as having a BMI at or above the 95th percentile on weight charts for kids and teens of the same age and sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While this is the most commonly used measurement, critics argue that BMI has its problems, particularly for muscular and athletic kids who may weigh more than most, even though they’re physically active and maintain a balanced diet.
If your doctor expresses concerns about your child’s weight, it’s important to get to the root of the problem before coming up with a plan. The Obesity Center lists depression, poor body image, low self-esteem, asthma, diabetes and behavioral and learning issues as red flags to look for.
Of course, poor diet and a lack of exercise are major contributors to a child’s likelihood to be obese. But there are other factors, too. A report by the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality (NICHQ) found ethnicity, for example, could put kids more at risk for weight gain. In NJ, African American and Hispanic children are most at risk for obesity. Family income also plays a role. “Low-income areas usually have limited access to grocery stores that sell affordable healthy food and fewer safe places to play and be active,” says Woo. Case in point: New Jersey has the highest prevalence of obese kids in low-income families among the 44 states who report this statistic, according to TFAH. In Trenton, schools are working to combat obesity by giving kids access to salad bars and incorporating more movement into lessons.
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Genetics also come into play. “Children who have obese or overweight parents are far more likely to become obese themselves,” explains Suzanne Cuda, MD, co-author of the Pediatric Obesity Algorithm and associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. “Parents of younger kids especially make almost all their children’s decisions when it comes to food, so if they’re making unhealthy choices, their children will be more likely to follow suit.”