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Is Your Child Obese?

By Hussein Adoto
28 November 2022   |   1:06 pm
Parents often see weight gain in their children as a sign of “good living,” but you need to know what weight gain is healthy, and when you should be concerned. Uncontrolled weight gain in children puts them at risk of obesity, and its related complications, most of which surface as they grow. Every child has…

Parents often see weight gain in their children as a sign of “good living,” but you need to know what weight gain is healthy, and when you should be concerned. Uncontrolled weight gain in children puts them at risk of obesity, and its related complications, most of which surface as they grow.

Every child has a normal weight range, and you can know your child’s status by using either the growth chart or the body mass index (BMI).

The growth chart
The growth chart measures a child’s height, weight, and head circumference to show how well and fast they are growing.

There is no universal growth chart. The WHO has growth charts recommended for international use, and every country is expected to develop its national growth charts. However, Nigeria doesn’t have a national growth chart, so the WHO growth chart could be used alone or with the CDC growth charts.

The Body Mass Index

The BMI is an index of a child’s weight status to their height. You can calculate your child’s BMI by dividing their weight in kilogrammes by the square of their height in metres.

For instance, if you have a seven-year-old boy that weighs 25kg and is 1.2m tall, you can calculate his BMI as approximately 17kg/m2. You can then compare the value you get to the BMIs of other children of the same age and sex to know their BMI percentile. The BMI percentile helps to group children into weight categories.

According to the CDC, a child with a BMI below the 5th percentile is underweight. Those whose BMI is between the 5th and 85th percentile have a healthy weight. Children with BMIs between the 85th and 95th percentile are considered overweight, while those with BMIs above the 95th percentile are obese.

The example of a 10-year-old boy in the image below shows how you can read the BMI chart. If the boy’s BMI falls between the 85th and 95th percentile, he would be considered overweight. The child is overweight because his BMI is more than at least 85% of seven-year-old boys in the population he is compared with. The child will be considered obese if the BMI exceeds 95% of the reference population.

The BMI is not uniform across ages and gender. Children are constantly growing, and their body weight varies according to age and sex. Because of this, a child’s BMI is expressed as BMI-for-age to the BMIs of other children in the same age and sex category.

Also, BMI-for-age only tells a part of the story about weight gain and body fat. A child with short stature and a heavy muscular build – as in athletic children – could have a high BMI-for-age that is not due to excess fat or obesity. The BMI-for-age is only a practical index to measure body fat.

In any case, you should aim for your child to have a BMI-for-age between the 5th and 85th percentile. A child below the 5th percentile is probably not getting enough energy or is burning more energy than he consumes, and such a BMI value indicates a nutritional deficiency.

On the other hand, if a child consumes more calories than he spends, it will result in a positive energy balance that could push the child above the 85th percentile. The positive balance indicates overnutrition, which could lead the child to gain more weight.

Your goal is not just for your child to have a normal BMI reading or result on the growth chart; such readings and results only give your child’s weight status at a particular time. Your interest should be on how fast the values change and how quickly they cross the percentiles. Therefore, you goal should be to keep the values steady within the normal range at all times.

Childhood Obesity in Nigeria

A 2018 UNICEF estimate shows that 1 in 100 under-5 children in Nigeria are overweight. A recent study reports that 10% of Nigerian schoolchildren aged between 6 to 13 are obese. There is no reliable national data to estimate the prevalence of childhood obesity in Nigeria.

Causes of childhood obesity

Doctors and nutritionists attribute the increase in childhood obesity to unhealthy changes in children’s diet, sleep patterns, and level of physical activity.

According to a UNICEF report, a diet filled with ultra-processed foods like noodles, biscuits, cakes and confectioneries, juice, and beverages can lead a child to be overweight or obese. Such a diet may provide energy, but it does not have adequate nutrition for a child’s well-being. Instead, the diet displaces more nutritious food from the menu.

Beyond eating junk food, children who don’t get enough physical activity like play and exercise, or sleep for nine to 13 hours per day, as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation, are likely to become obese.

An obese child could grow into an obese adult. They could go on to develop diseases like hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer. Apart from the impact of obesity on their physical health, obese children could also suffer low self-esteem and poor mental health.

How can you help your child to maintain a healthy weight?

You can help your child lose weight or maintain a healthy weight by ensuring they eat the right kinds of food, get enough sleep, and engage in sports and exercise.

Guide them to change their habits

First, you must help them change pro-obesity habits, such as sitting for long hours watching cartoons or playing video games. A 2020 NCC report indicates that children spend three to 10 hours in front of their smartphones and tablets. Besides posing a risk for addiction, too much screen time will reduce children’s time for physical activities.

Support them in improving their diet and level of physical activity

Help your children to cut down on sugary food, drinks, and junk. Give your child water and encourage them to eat fruits and vegetables with high nutrients and low calories. Let your children get at least nine hours of sleep by getting them to sleep early. Encourage them to play football, ride bicycles, and walk around the house.

Be a healthy model for them

Beyond initiating a change of habits and diet for your children, you should also model healthy habits through your own diet and physical activity. A good example is often the best form of advice. By modelling healthy behaviour yourself, you make it easier for your child to follow suit.

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