Childhood obesity is a disease that affects 18 out of every 100 children in the United States. Obesity is a true disease caused by a problem with the body’s hunger and fullness system. Learn more about childhood obesity and how to prevent it from Sonali Malhotra, MBBS, of Pediatric Endocrinology at Mass General for Children (MGfC).

What Do Doctors Use to Check If a Child Has Obesity?

Doctors use a measurement called the Body Mass Index (BMI) to tell if someone has obesity. Doctors can measure a person’s BMI when they consider body fat, height and weight.

Fast Facts About Obesity

  • Obesity is not simply a matter of calories in and calories out. How the body uses food for energy and storage is a complex process. It involves many hormones and chemicals (called neurotransmitters).
  • Food does not always cause obesity. Obesity is a true disease that doctors can diagnose. Obesity is mostly caused by a problem with how the body regulates the use of food for energy balance.
  • Obesity is not a choice. It is also not a sign that someone lacks willpower or self-control.

How Can I Prevent Childhood Obesity?

There are many ways you can prevent obesity:

Be a Positive Role Model

  • Set a good example of what it means to live a healthy, active lifestyle.
  • Keep in mind that the overall picture of health is the key. It is a good idea to eat a variety of colorful, healthy foods and enjoy your favorite treats every once in a while.

Keep It Positive

  • Keep conversations about food positive. Food is a source of joy and nourishment. It is not the enemy or something that brings about sadness, guilt or shame.
  • Focus on all the benefits of making healthy food choices, like being able to play a favorite sport. Do not shame your child for their food choices, weight or feelings.

Make It Fun

  • Involve your child in food shopping and cooking.
  • Use rewards for positive behavior that do not involve food. For example, a trip to the park.

Build Awareness

  • If your child asks for food, ask them if they are truly hungry or if they just feel like eating it. This will help them build the skills to make healthy, thoughtful choices out of true hunger.

Did You Know...?

Children who have obesity are more likely to have obesity and diseases tied to obesity as adults. This includes heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease (when fat builds up in the liver). Children with parents who have obesity have an almost a 1 in 2 chance of also having obesity later in life.

Did You Know...?

Children who have already developed obesity need more than a healthy diet and physical activity to reach a healthy weight. Children might also need medications or therapy. In rare cases, teens and young adults might need weight loss surgery. Ask the care team which treatments are best for your child.

Rev. 1/2020. Mass General for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this handout. This handout is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treatment of any medical conditions.