Admit it. When you come across a child or a teenager who looks obese, you may probably think that the child has poor eating habits or is not physically active. While a poor diet and lack of exercise do contribute to excess weight gain, they’re not the only reasons behind obesity.
Obesity in teens can be due to various other reasons, including the emotional changes that a child goes through during adolescence. However, following a healthy lifestyle and family support can help teens fight obesity.
In this MomJunction post, we tell you about the causes, symptoms, and treatment for obesity, and share some tips to prevent obesity.
Obesity occurs when the body accumulates excessive fat. It happens when there is an imbalance between the number of calories taken in and the calories burnt. To achieve a healthy weight, the calories consumed and spent should be equal.
Is Being Overweight The Same As Being Obese?
No. The terms obesity and overweight are both associated with body weight over the ideal range. However, obesity is excess fat, whereas overweight is excess body weight due to muscles, fat, body water, or bone mass (1). It is also different in terms of the Body Mass Index (BMI) range calculated for both (2).
- The BMI between the 85th and 95th percentile on a BMI chart indicates that the person is overweight.
- The BMI above the 95th percentile indicates obesity.
As the BMI is calculated based on height, weight, age, and sex, it is difficult to come up with a single healthy average weight for teens (3).
How Common Is Obesity In Teens?
According to the WHO’s obesity facts, the obesity rate in children and adolescents, of both sexes, has risen from 4% in 1975 to 18% in 2016. Globally, over 340 million children and adolescents in the age range of 5 to 19 were found to be obese in 2016 (4). US has found that there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of obesity in American children, with about one-third of children and adolescents being obese (5).
What Are The Causes For Obesity In Teens?
Teenage obesity is associated with the risk factors that we explain below (6):
- Obesity can be genetic, which means the condition could run in the family. Studies have found more than 50 genes that are associated with obesity. The complex interaction between the genes and the environmental factors can also be a cause of obesity. The signals and responses for hunger are managed by the genes, and a slight variation in the genes can cause hormonal imbalance and disrupt the metabolic activity (7).
- Metabolism plays a vital role in regulating body weight. If the energy intake is more than the energy burnt over a given period, then it may lead to obesity (8).
- Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are found to be affected more by obesity. Preparing nutritious meals at home requires the purchase of ingredients which could be expensive. Children from low-income families rely on pre-cooked and convenient foods that are usually high in calories (9).
- Lifestyle choices such as eating high-calorie foods and living a sedentary life can lead to obesity. Being physically inactive makes it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.
- Medical conditions, including hormonal conditions like hypothyroidism and genetic syndromes like Prader-Willi (associated with an insatiable appetite in children), can lead to obesity (10).
- Certain medications, such as anti-depressants and steroids, can also be a causative factor for obesity (11).
- Other factors such as overeating or binge eating, illnesses like endocrine or neurological problems can result in obesity. Stress due to low self-esteem, family and peer problems, depression, or emotional problems could also be a cause.
When the child is putting on more-than-normal weight, then you might want to know if it is obesity or the weight-gain is just a temporary factor. For this, you may observe the symptoms that come along with obesity.
What Are The Symptoms Of Obesity In Teens?
The common signs and symptoms of obesity include (11):
- The appearance of stretch marks on the hips and abdomen
- Dark velvety skin around the neck and other areas
- Deposition of fat around the breast area, especially in boys
- Shortness of breath during a physical activity
- Sleep apnea
- Constipation and gastroesophageal reflux
- Psychological symptoms like eating disorders, abusing and teasing, and poor self-esteem
- Irregular menstrual cycle or early puberty in girls or delayed puberty in boys. The genitals may appear to be small in boys
- Dislocated hip, knock-knees, and flat feet are some orthopedic symptoms related to obesity
How Is Obesity Diagnosed In Teens?
Pediatricians use BMI as a tool to diagnose obesity in children. There are two categories by which obesity is defined (6):
- If the BMI is at the 95th percentile or more as per the CDC growth charts or if BMI is more than 30, then a complete medical checkup is required for the child.
- If the BMI is between the 85th and 95th percentile or if the BMI is equal to 30, then the child will be screened for health risks in five areas:
- Evaluating family history for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity
- Total cholesterol level
- High blood pressure
- Assessing the increase in BMI from year to year
A thorough diagnosis can help pinpoint the cause of obesity and chart a treatment or weight management plan.
Management And Treatment Of Obesity In Teens
The treatment is decided by the doctor based on the diagnosis, age, sex, and medical history of the child as well as the severity of the condition. Treatment and management options include:
- Nutritional diet counseling and weight-management programs for teens
- Increased physical activity and participation in exercise programs
- Diet modifications to control calorie intake
- Behavioral changes
- Group or individual therapies for behavioral changes and for confronting the weight-related issues as well as normal developmental issues
- Encouraging the child to implement the changes as per the treatment plan
Medical treatment: The FDA has approved a prescription medicine called Orlistat (Xenical) that can be used for weight loss in children aged 12 years and above. It helps in reducing the absorption of fat from the food that one eats. However, the medicine may have some mild side effects such as diarrhea, gas, oily stools, and stomach pain (12).
The involvement of a nutritionist, fitness coach, and a mental health counselor can help in setting a realistic goal for the treatment of obesity.
What Are The Complications Of Obesity?
Obesity can have severe effects on the overall health of a child. Effects of obesity in teens are explained here (13):
- Childhood obesity can lead to the risk of being overweight in adulthood.
- It can lead to type 2 diabetes, which causes insulin resistance, thereby increasing the blood sugar levels.
- Osteoarthritis can occur, causing pain in the joints of knees and hips due to the extra weight of the body.
- Breathing problems like asthma are common in obese children. Obesity also causes heavy snoring and sleep apnea, a condition where nighttime sleep is interrupted, and the child feels sleepy during the day.
- Other complications include liver disease, reproductive problems, heart disease due to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and some cancers.
- Social isolation, stress, and depression are a few psychosocial consequences encountered by the child who is obese (14).
Poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle are among the primary causes of obesity in children. In such cases, obesity can be prevented in children.
Ways To Prevent Obesity In Teens
However, there are a few tips that can be followed to help a teenager lose weight.
- Change the family’s eating habits and focus on engaging the child in physical activities.
- Indulge in eating healthy and nutritious food and set an example for children to follow.
- Exercising for 60 minutes every day is the best way for a teenager to lose weight and maintain healthy body weight (15).
- Reduce television and computer time to two hours per day.
- Let them munch on healthy foods rather than junk during snack time. Replace junk food with fruits and vegetables and soft drinks with low-fat milk.
- Encourage them to eat smaller meals at different intervals of time.
- Encourage them to drink plenty of water instead of sugary drinks or energy drinks during physical activity. Water helps in maintaining the metabolic functions of the body.
- Let them get enough sleep at night.
A healthy meal plan can also help prevent obesity in teens.
How Many Calories Does A Teenager Need?
Here is a table of the recommended average calorie intake by boys and girls for a healthy weight gain depending upon their age and activity level (16):
For girls (calories required):
|Age (years)||Not active||Moderately active||Active|
For boys (calories required):
|Age (years)||Not active||Moderately active||Active|
Inculcating a healthy lifestyle right from childhood is the best way to help your child maintain a healthy weight. Parents need to encourage children to develop healthy habits and routines. Though medications are available for treating the condition, obesity is best prevented as far as possible, with nutritious food and physical activities.
Do you have any experiences to share? Tell us about them in the comments section below.
2. Defining Childhood Obesity; Center for Disease Control and Prevention
3. About Child & Teen BMI; Center for Disease Control and Prevention
4. Obesity in Adolescents; Stanford Children’s Health
5. Genes and obesity; Center for Disease Control and Prevention
6. Factors That Influence Body Weight; NCBI
7. David C. Lieb, MD, Rodney E. Snow, MD, et al.; Socioeconomic Factors in the Development of Childhood Obesity and Diabetes; NCBI
8. Prader-Willi syndrome; NIH
9. Childhood Obesity Symptoms & Causes; Boston Children’s Hospital
10. Prescription Medications to Treat Overweight and Obesity; NIH
11. Obesity in Teens; University of Rochester Medical Center Rochester
12. Teen Obesity; Palo Alto Medical Foundation
13. Facts and figures on childhood obesity; WHO
14. Obesity and overweight; WHO
15. How Many Calories Does My Teen Need?; Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics