Childhood Obesity By: Sarah Zucker, PsyD


September is Childhood Obesity Awareness month. Besides having potentially devastating consequences for physical health, childhood obesity has well-documented negative implications on children’s mental health as well.

According to the Center for Disease Control, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012. Rates for obesity and being overweight have quadrupled among adolescents alone in the last thirty years. Some well-known concerns and risks that overweight or obese children face are: cardiovascular disease, prediabetes and diabetes, bone and joint problems, and sleep apnea. Also, children who are overweight are much more likely to age into overweight or obese adults than non-overweight children, and there are a host of life-threatening complications that arise from being obese as an adult. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, obesity will be the number killer around the globe. Additionally, obesity is correlated with discrimination when applying for housing, employment, jobs, and college acceptance, to name only a few.

Healthy development in childhood is critical to healthy adulthood, which is one of the main reasons childhood obesity is so alarming. Children as young as six can have low self-esteem, face stigma and shame, and have a lack of confidence due to their weight. Feeling ostracized year after year, children tend to internalize weight-based teasing and are at a greater risk of depression, anxiety, having fewer friends, and poorer academic performance. They are also more likely to cope with emotional eating, which only compounds the problem. Parents of overweight or obese children regularly express that it is heart-breaking to witness their overweight child experience bullying and shaming from their peers. Despite the body acceptance movement gaining popularity, which advocates accepting and loving one’s body at any size, it is still incredibly difficult for most children to be overweight or obese in our thinness-obsessed culture.

So, with all of this bad news, how do you start your child off on a healthy path or address an existing concern with your child’s weight? First things first: If your child is facing bullying or teasing that is harming them, don’t wait to seek professional help. More psychologists in San Diego have experience in treating this issue now because, unfortunately, it is a fast-growing problem. Speak to your child about what they are experiencing at school and how they are feeling. Remember, not talking about something painful does not make it go away. For children, it often exacerbates the problem because they rely on adults to bring up the tough stuff.

Experts recommend encouraging play that revolves around being active as opposed to playing video games or being sedentary. Your children watch what you do and use your behavior to inform their choices, so you can show them how physical activity can be fun. It’s also important to model healthy and moderated eating. Not sure exactly what healthy foods and healthy food-related behaviors are? You’re not alone. Many times it is a lack of understanding of what constitutes healthy foods. You can consult a nutritionist to help you navigate the grocery store, and there is a wealth of information available online. If you are struggling with your own disordered eating and weight issues, many therapists are very knowledgeable in disordered eating and the mental health issues that play into obesity. They can also refer you to helpful books and articles on the subject.

Obesity is a medical issue and is not about a lack of character. It’s always a good idea to check-in with your physician regarding the weight and eating habits of your family if you have any concerns. Demonstrating to your child what it looks like to be proactive about health can make a significant difference, and there are many low-cost resources available if money is an issue. When in doubt, ask for help. Your child’s health is worth it.