Childhood obesity is a chronic disease that can affect growth and overall health. Preventing childhood obesity can help avoid health issues in adulthood.

Childhood obesity affects 14.7 million children and adolescents in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Worldwide, over 124 million children and adolescents had obesity in 2016, reports the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some strategies that may reduce obesity in children include creating a healthy food environment: Limiting calories from saturated fats and sugar, eating nutritious meals most of the time, and exercising regularly could help prevent the development of obesity in children.

However, it is much more complex than that. Socioeconomic and environmental factors come into play as well.

This article details ways to prevent childhood obesity with a focus on diet, sleep, exercise, and the importance of family influence.

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Reducing the rates of childhood obesity involves several parties, including family, community, and the food industry.

The food industry plays a major role in shaping the food environment that surrounds children. The food industry can help prevent childhood obesity by working to improve the quality of foods, including:

  • limiting fat, sugar, and salt content in processed foods
  • providing nutritious foods that are affordable and accessible
  • limiting advertisements of sugar or fat-rich foods to children and adolescents

Family influence

Family and home life can contribute to a child’s chances of developing obesity.

For instance, family members play an essential role in developing a strong foundation for long-term commitment to exercise. Encouraging active play with a variety of activities can help keep children interested in being active.

Families also choose how children eat. Parents and caregivers provide the model for children’s eating habits.

Educating parents and adult caregivers on healthy eating habits can help teach children how to adopt the eating habits that promote health and prevent obesity. Community groups and pediatricians can provide education and tips.

Learn more about obesity here.

Preventing childhood obesity is important because of the health and cost impacts it can have on individuals.

Children and adolescents with obesity have a higher risk of asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions, according to the CDC.

Children with obesity are more likely to have obesity in adulthood, suggests a 2016 paper. Adults with obesity have a higher risk of stroke, certain cancers, and mental health conditions, notes the CDC.

It is also more challenging for adults living with obesity to lose weight if they have a history of obesity.

Treating obesity in children with medications and bariatric surgery may be costly. Complications from these interventions are also important to consider. Preventing obesity helps minimize healthcare costs for individuals.

Experts suggest that society and culture have contributed to creating environments that encourage a sedentary lifestyle.

High calorie foods that are low in nutrients are often more accessible and affordable. These societal contributors make it more challenging for certain lifestyle strategies that help prevent obesity from working.

Following a nutritious, balanced eating plan the majority of the time can help prevent obesity. Important pillars of childhood obesity programs include introducing plant-based foods and fruits.

The WHO recommends:

  • limiting calorie-rich foods that are high in fat and sugar
  • eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts

More specific dietary guidelines are in the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Within these guidelines, experts suggest following the below calorie requirements:

Age groupRecommended calories per day
Ages 2–4Females: 1,000–1,400
Males: 1,000–1,600
Ages 5–8Females: 1,200–1,800
Males: 1,200–2,000
Ages 9–13Females: 1,400–2,200
Males: 1,600–2,600
Ages 14–18Females: 1,800–2,400
Males: 2,000–3,200

Exercise is another essential pillar for preventing childhood obesity. Encouraging children to be active requires a family approach and a community effort. Parents living an active lifestyle can provide a foundation for appreciating the benefits of exercise.

Recommendations for physical activity for children depend on their age. The CDC recommends children between 3 and 5 years old be active throughout most of the day. Older children, preteens, and teens are encouraged to be active for a minimum of 60 minutes every day.

Specifically, experts recommend moderate and vigorous exercise for school-aged children 6–17 years old. Exercise consists of a combination of both aerobic activity and muscle and bone strengthening workouts.

Examples of exercises for children include:

  • skipping rope
  • running
  • dancing
  • bicycling
  • sports, such as tennis and basketball
  • using playground equipment
  • playing tug-of-war
  • working out with weights or resistance bands, with supervision

Being physically active not only contributes to preventing obesity but also:

Evidence on the negative effects of sleep deprivation on weight in adults and children is growing. Some experts suggest a lack of sleep affects certain hormones that affect weight, activity levels, and caloric intake.

A lack of sleep is associated not only with weight gain but also with low sleep quality, timing, and efficiency. Prevention strategies for obesity now involve improving sleep.

The following table is adapted from the CDC and lists the recommended hours of sleep a child or adolescent requires:

Age groupRecommended hours of sleep per day
Toddler (1–2 years)11–14 hours
Preschool (3–5 years)10–13 hours
School age (6–12 years)9–12 hours
Teens (13–18 years)8–10 hours

Getting the recommended hours of sleep per night is important. However, people must also assess and improve their sleep quality. Improving sleep quality may require:

  • establishing a consistent sleep routine
  • keeping the bedroom dark, quiet, comfortable, and relaxing
  • avoiding the use of electronics before bedtime
  • not eating and drinking a few hours before bedtime
  • exercising

Tips for preventing childhood obesity require a family and community approach. Designing an environment that encourages and maintains a healthy lifestyle may help prevent or limit poor health habits.

The CDC recommends families support children in preventing obesity by:

  • modeling healthy eating habits
  • finding physical activities that are challenging and fun
  • limiting screen time and replacing it with family time
  • improving sleep habits

Healthy eating habits require limiting sugar and eating whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables. Eating the same meal as a family can help children follow a healthy meal program. Together, the family eats healthier, and everyone’s health improves.

Making exercise and physical activity a family or community affair can encourage children to be active. Fitness or sports coaches can help children achieve their fitness and health goals too.

Healthy competition can sometimes encourage children to be active and improve physical fitness. Some suggestions for activities families can do together include:

  • taking a walk together
  • riding bikes or rollerblading
  • doing active chores, such as vacuuming and washing the floor

Spending a lot of time in front of a screen can lead to obesity. Limiting screen time can add more time for physical activity.

According to the CDC, setting consistent bedtimes may help prevent obesity. Children who lack sleep have a higher risk of unwanted and unhealthy weight gain. More time awake may cause a child to eat more. Less sleep may discourage activity if a child feels exhausted.

Preventing childhood obesity requires strategies that involve the family, one’s community, and the food industry.

The environment at home can influence how children eat. The food industry also has a role in providing affordable and accessible foods that are nutrient-dense and low in sugar and fat. Communities can help prevent childhood obesity by maintaining playgrounds and sports programs.