Obesity continues to be a problem in the United States, and not just among adults. Childhood obesity affects about one in five school-aged children. Learning more about obesity and how to prevent it can help as we work to improve the health of our children.

What is Obesity?

Obesity is having excess body fat. Body mass index (BMI) is a commonly used tool for measuring obesity. A person’s weight is divided by their height and the resulting number provides an estimate of the amount of body fat the person has. In children, BMI is sex- and age-specific to take into account different growth rates. Children with a BMI at or above the 95th percentile are considered obese.

Childhood Obesity Statistics

Childhood obesity is a widespread problem in the United States, and has nearly tripled since 1970. Here’s a look at some statistics about obesity among children ages 2-19 in the United States:

  • About 17 percent of children are obese
  • 12.7 million children and adolescents are affected by obesity
  • Obesity rates are higher among Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks, at 21.9 percent and 19.5 percent respectively
  • The obesity rate among non-Hispanic whites is 14.7 percent
  • Non-Hispanic Asian youth have the lowest obesity rate, at 8.6 percent
  • The prevalence of obesity increases as children age; it’s 8.9 percent for ages 2-5, 17.5 percent for ages 6-11, and 20.5 percent for ages12-19
  • Low-income children have higher rates of obesity; among participants in the WIC program, 14.5 percent of children ages 2-5 had obesity

Problems Associated with Obesity in Children

Obesity impacts children’s physical, social and emotional health. Here are some of the ways children are affected:

  • Children with obesity are more likely to experience other chronic diseases and health conditions, including sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, asthma and risk factors for heart disease
  • Obese children are more likely to be bullied and teased
  • Children with obesity are more likely to suffer from social isolation and lower self-esteem
  • Childhood obesity is associated with obesity as an adult, which puts you at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, several types of cancer, metabolic syndrome and other serious medical conditions
  • Obese children often miss more days of school than children with healthy weights, which can make it difficult to keep up academically
  • Childhood obesity is related to psychological problems like depression and anxiety

Reducing Childhood Obesity

Preventing childhood obesity and helping obese children achieve a healthy weight both focus on helping children learn to lead healthy lives. Use these lifestyle tips to help your child achieve or maintain a healthy weight:

  • Regular physical activity – Children should get at least one hour of physical activity every day. This can include exercise, sports and active play to help build strong muscles and bones, improve cardiorespiratory fitness and control weight.
  • Switch to water – Children in the United States on an average day consumed 224 calories from a soft drink; that’s almost 11 percent of their daily calorie intake. Consuming so many liquid calories makes it easy to overeat and gain weight. Switching from sugary beverages like soda, fruit drinks and sports drinks to water leads to increased cognitive functioning and improved weight control. Water is essential for the body’s proper functioning, and is especially important during the formative years of childhood.
  • Practice healthy eating habits – Reasonable portion sizes are key to lowering childhood obesity. Check nutrition labels for serving size information and stick with the recommended serving. Be aware of snacks; it’s fine for children to snack, but make sure the portion sizes are appropriate. It’s best to give children a measured serving because it’s easy to overeat when snacking.
  • Make healthy food choices – What children eat also makes a difference. Reduce fried, sugary, salty and fast food and work to include more fruits and vegetables in your child’s diet.
  • Reduce screen time – Screen time, including smartphones, TV and video games, should be no more than two hours per day. Excessive screen time is linked to hyperactivity, obesity, negative mental health, poor school performance and sleep disturbance.
  • Get enough sleep – Young children ages 2-5 need at least 11 hours of sleep per day and children ages 6-12 need at least 10 hours of sleep per day.

Tips for Keeping Children Active

Help your child stay active with these tips:

  • Encourage outdoor games like follow the leader, tag, hopscotch and hide and seek
  • Explore the world by chasing shadows, digging in the dirt and planting a garden
  • Do chores together like dusting, sweeping and wiping off the table
  • Set a good example by exercising regularly
  • Sign up for a recreational or sports program
  • Cook together

Healthy Snacks for Children

Snacking helps children get the nutrients they need, but it shouldn’t be a free-for-all. Stick with an eating schedule that includes one or two snack times and choose healthy snacks. Here are a few ideas:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Greek yogurt
  • Fruit and yogurt smoothie
  • Cheese
  • Apple or pear with almond butter
  • Frozen peas and corn with string cheese
  • Pizza made on a whole-grain pita and topped with vegetables and a little cheese
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Crunchy vegetables and hummus


Teaching your child to make healthy lifestyle choices not only helps them maintain a healthy weight during childhood, but also helps them develop skills and habits that will serve them well throughout their lives. If you are concerned about your child’s weight, talk to your doctor. They can help determine if your child suffers from obesity and offer recommendations for dealing with the problem.