Excess weight and obesity currently affect approximately 40 percent of Rhode Island children and teenagers. Children who are overweight or have obesity suffer from health problems such as high blood pressure, liver disease, sleep apnea, diabetes, and heart disease. They can become targets of bullying and discrimination, which impacts their school performance, mental health, and quality of life.

Obesity affects children of different races and ethnicities differently. According to KIDS COUNT, in Rhode Island, 50 percent of Hispanic children and 46 percent of Black children are more likely to be overweight or have obesity compared to 33 percent of white children.

Here are some answers to questions that parents often have.

What defines overweight and obesity in children?

A doctor can use your child’s height and weight to calculate their body mass index (BMI). If it is significantly higher than the BMI of other children of the same age and gender, this number can help determine if your child is overweight or has obesity. You can get an idea of your child’s BMI using this Center for Disease Control (CDC) calculator.

What causes childhood obesity?

There are often many reasons for the development of obesity in childhood: food choices and physical activity, as well as family history, nutrition during pregnancy, hormones, emotions, and sleep may all play a role. Some families have difficulty accessing or affording healthy foods or may live in neighborhoods without safe spaces for children to play and get physical activity.

Why should I worry about my child’s weight now?

Children and adolescents often change their food preferences quickly. This is why it is important to make sure that they develop healthy eating habits and physical activity routines early in life. Otherwise, their poor nutrition and exercise habits can continue into adulthood and keep them from developing and growing normally. Children who suffer from obesity can develop high blood pressure, diabetes, liver disease, and breathing problems such as sleep apnea even before becoming adults. They may need medications to control their blood sugar and blood pressure, or machines to help them breathe while they sleep. Often, children with excess weight develop depression, anxiety, and difficulties interacting with others their age.

The good news is that early intervention in childhood can help set up children for successful, healthy habits for life.

How can I help my child develop healthy eating habits?

Family involvement is key to healthy eating habits. At different ages, children might use eating to establish and practice their independence. This can look like picky eating or refusal to try new foods. Parents and guardians of younger children need to be patient – it can take eight to ten attempts of offering healthier foods in different forms (cooked, cut, or served differently) to get a child to try and enjoy them. Older kids may do better with eating healthier food if it is easy to find at home. They are more likely to participate in healthy eating if they are involved in selecting, buying, and cooking the meals. Finally, it is important not to use food as punishment or to single out a child with obesity. Families can work towards making healthier food choices, limiting processed foods, eating more home-cooked meals together, cutting back on screen time, and enjoying more physical activities together.

The 5-2-1-0 Rule

A good starting point for all kids and families is the 5-2-1-0 rule.

  • FIVE servings of fruits/vegetables per day
  • TWO hours or less of recreational screen time per day
  • ONE hour or more of physical activity per day
  • ZERO sugar sweetened beverages, such as soda, per day

Additional resources are available from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Help is available

Helping your child reach and maintain a healthy weight can be difficult and frustrating. It is an ongoing process as your child grows. It is important to let your child know that you support them. Try to make sure that they don’t feel guilty about their weight and are empowered to make important changes. Support from their family matters the most.

It is common for children to struggle with weight loss and staying at a healthy weight despite these efforts. In those cases, a more structured program, such as the Healthy Eating Active Living Through Hasbro (HEALTH) program at Hasbro Children's Hospital, may be helpful. These programs can help your child connect with teams of nutritionists, doctors, nurses, and other specialists to help them get the assistance they need.

In some cases, children and teenagers can qualify for medications that help them feel full or even lose weight. Your doctor may refer you to a childhood weight management specialist who can discuss the medications in more detail. In severe cases or when illnesses like diabetes already develop, teenagers can qualify for bariatric (weight loss) surgery, which can help them lose and keep the weight off for a very long time. Even though surgery and medications are a big commitment and may feel like giving up, they still require a lot of work and may help when nothing else does. You and your child don’t have to do this alone – we are here to help!

For more information on helping children lead happy, healthy lives, visit the Growing section of the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Artur Chernoguz, MD

Artur Chernoguz, MD

Dr. Artur Chernoguz is a pediatric surgeon with the Center for Bariatric Surgery. He specializes in ECMO, minimally invasive surgery, and adolescent bariatric surgery.