Obesity starts at an early age

Before allowing children to load up on sugar cookies and gingerbread men this holiday season, parents might want to think twice.

By the time children start kindergarten, 6 percent in the United States are already severely obese and on the path to a lifetime of health issues from diabetes to heart disease.

So, the tough two-part question is why are kids so heavy, and what can be done to prevent it?

“Multiple risk factors associated with obesity play a role, from the sugary drinks children consume to their bedtime habits,” says Dr. Glenn Flores, a pediatrician at UT Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Division of General Pediatrics at Children’s Medical Center.

Surpassing the 85th percentile for Body Mass Index (BMI) at 9 months of age is one of the most powerful predictors of severe obesity, which is defined as being above the 99th percentile of average Americans at any given age.

The risk for obesity can start even before birth. If the mother was severely obese just before her pregnancy, it’s likely her child also will face weight problems, Dr. Flores says. Being Latino or multiracial is also associated with severe obesity among kindergarteners.

Youngsters who are severely obese are at risk for high triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure. They also have school absenteeism rates much higher than those of healthy-weight children, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The first step to reducing the risk of obesity is screening for children who are at high risk. Starting when they are 9 months old, children’s BMI and growth curve should be monitored.

Parents can also take the following steps to reduce the risk of having a severely obese child:

  • Starting at 9 months of age, take the child outside for exercise or play at least a few times a week;
  • Maintain strict bedtime rules;
  • Make sure the child eats fruit at least weekly; and
  • Avoid consuming sugary drinks.

To learn more about clinical services in pediatrics at UT Southwestern, visit www.utsouthwestern.org/pediatrics.

Media Contact: janice.jarvis@utsouthwestern.edu" title="Email Jan Jarvis