Our children’s health is one of the most important things to us as parents. The fear of breaking an arm playing sports or getting pink eye at school is always in the back of our minds. But sometimes, we put too much focus on the here and now, and forget about the long road.

A slow-moving, but important health concern is overweight and obesity in children. Not only can it impact our children’s physical well-being, but it can have an effect on their mental health as well. Unfortunately, this problem is on the rise. Since 1970, the percentage of children with obesity has tripled.

Fortunately, there are ways to help your child get healthy and stay healthy. Here’s how I answer the most common questions I get from concerned parents:

When is a child considered obese?

A child is considered overweight when their BMI is at or above the 85th percentile. And they have obesity when the BMI is at or above the 95th percentile. About 30 percent of children in the U.S. are overweight and 17 percent are obese. Over the past decade, obesity rates among children have leveled off. This is most likely due to greater public awareness and national campaigns that are working to get kids active and eating better.

How does being overweight or obese affect my child’s overall health?

Twenty years ago, type 2 diabetes was rarely reported in kids. But, with the rise in pediatric obesity, there has been a dramatic increase of this condition in youth. A national multi-center study has found that type 2 diabetes accounts for up to 15 percent of all diabetes diagnoses in children over age 10.

Other health consequences that we routinely see in clinic are fatty liver disease, high cholesterol, hypertension and hormonal changes, such as early puberty and polycystic ovary syndrome.

Being overweight as a child increases the risk of being overweight as an adult. So that means that if these conditions don’t develop in childhood, they are likely to develop later. Obesity as an adult may also lead to:

  • Heart disease
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Orthopedic issues

Can being overweight or obese affect my child’s mental well-being?

There are higher rates of depression and poor self-esteem in children who struggle with their weight. There is also a higher risk of disordered eating, such as binge eating. Children who are overweight are more likely to be bullied and shamed by other children, teachers, coaches and even family members. All of this can lead to mental health concerns.

Are some children more at risk for obesity?

Any child can be at risk. But that risk can vary depending on many factors. Some, like genetics, are simply part of who they are. If some family members are overweight, a child could struggle as well. And there are medical conditions and medications that can promote weight gain, too.

But many other factors are lifestyle choices. And these can be improved. Lack of sleep can influence weight. We make important hormones overnight that regulate feeling full. Also, limited physical inactivity and a diet high in processed and sugary food are common culprits.

While the overall rates of obesity have remained steady in recent years, there has been an increase in severe obesity in African American boys, Hispanic girls and Caucasian girls.

How can I prevent obesity in my child?

Families need to work on eating better and staying active together. Getting rid of junk food and sugary beverages in the home is a good place to start. Stock up with better snacks, fruits and veggies.

As parents, we need to be good role models for our kids with eating well and being physically active. For example, have a family meal and then go out together for a walk or bike ride after dinner. Encourage your child to find a sport they enjoy. Having meals together has been shown to be protective against overweight and unhealthy eating habits in kids. Putting down the screens and having conversations enhances family connectedness.

Also, make cooking fun! Include your children in food preparation. It can help get them excited about what they are going to eat and learn important life skills.

Be aware of the messages you are sending about what they are allowed to eat. Restricting food can promote both weight gain and disordered eating. If children are still hungry after a meal, encourage them to eat more fruits and veggies. And be sure to do this as a team. It won’t work if one child can’t have a soda, but parents or siblings can. The whole family needs to support each other in the effort.

How can I help my child who has weight challenges?

To get started, remember 5-2-1-0:

  • 5 or more servings of fruit/vegetables per day
  • 2 hours or less of screen time (TV/computer/video games) per day
  • 1 hour or more of exercise per day
  • 0 sugar-sweetened beverages a day (juice, pop/soda, whole milk), and instead drinking water and skim or fat-free milk

While it may seem simple, making changes to reach these goals can be challenging. So try taking small, obtainable steps toward them first.

Our organization also offers better eating resources in the community. You can check out PowerUp and yumPower for better-for-you recipes for your family. These initiatives also put on events to keep families active.

Sometimes, being supported in an environment with other kids who have the same struggles can help, too. Park Nicollet and HealthPartners work with One Heartland to put on Camp 5210. This sleepaway summer camp for kids focuses on lifestyle changes all while having fun outdoors.

How do I talk to my child about his or her weight?

This topic needs to be approached in a sensitive manner. Don’t focus on the child’s weight. Avoid using the words “fat,” “overweight” or “obese.” Instead of focusing on your child’s weight, focus on making healthy eating changes and increasing physical activity. Set goals as a family. And by that same measure, watch how you talk about yourself or others with regard to weight. Children can easily redirect those comments to themselves.

Make sure to support your child’s ideas. Discuss how they want to adopt better eating and activity habits, reducing screen time and getting more sleep. The key is committing to lifestyle changes as a family.

Lastly, always end on your child’s strengths. Being overweight is not who they are. Empathize and listen to what they are saying, and remind them of the positive qualities they have.