Childhood Obesity – the facts and causes


The obesity epidemic is not isolated to adults.  It has had a major impact on our children, from infants to teens.  The most recent worldwide data from the year 2002 showed an increase in overweight and obese children throughout developing countries (see map illustration). (1)  In 2015, The CDC published more recent US data reporting, “Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.” (2)  By 2012, 18% of children (3) and 21% of adolescents were obese. (4)

Many factors contribute to obesity in children, such as too many calories, fast foods, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, television, video games, modeling by parents, and changing societal expectations.  Some have long believed that maternal obesity is the direct cause of childhood obesity, but “the relative contributions of shared maternal genes versus intrauterine factors make it difficult to differentiate cause and effect.” (5).  Williams poses an interesting concept, believing that when discussing causes of obesity in children, it is “essential to consider a disordered relationship with food as one of the underlying causes of overweight and obesity.” (6)   Obese children are raised not to view food as a source of vital nutrition, but as a reward, as fun snacks, as time fillers, or as something that Mom and Dad eat.  Children are often not offered choices of fruits and vegetables but are fed pizza, fries, and juice from early ages, which Williams says results in difficulty learning the need and value of food as nutrition.

The CDC reinforces these statements, and emphasizes that in today’s society, parents are not the only people who impact children’s food intake. Children learn both physical activity choices and dietary choices that are influenced by “many sectors of society, including families, communities, schools, child care settings, medical care providers, faith-based institutions, government agencies, the media, and the food and beverage industries and entertainment industries.”   (7)  The CDC further emphasizes the crucial role played by schools where children can learn and model both exercise and diet.  This requires involved school systems, and usually a close working relationship between physicians and the schools, assuring that the children are healthy and also learning healthy eating and exercise behaviors as part of the curriculum.   Several resources for communities and schools are provided by the CDC, NIH, and other government groups.  (8).

This material is a basic overview of the issues we are facing with our children, with today’s rate of obesity.  The impact on our children’s physical and emotional health and long-term consequences of childhood obesity will be discussed in a future post on the SERMO blog.




  1. Ebbing, et al. Childhood obesity: public-health crisis, common sense cure.  Lancet 2002, 360: 473–82
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Obesity Facts.  CDC Obesity Facts Adolescent and School Health, December 11, 2014
  3. Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011 – 2012. Journal of the American Medical Association 2014;311(8)
  4. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2011: With Special Features on socioeconomic Status and Health. Hyattsville, MD; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012.
  5. Whitaker RC, Dietz WH. Role of the prenatal environment in the development of obesity. J Pediatr 1998; 132: 768–76.
  6. Williams, DR. Obesity in Children and Adolescents: Identifying Eating Disorders.  Consultant 360.  February 2015.
  8. School Health Guidelines to Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (/healthyyouth/npao/strategies.htm)

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