Health Advice



Ask the Pediatrician: What is obesity and when do children need medical treatment?

Dr. Sandra Hassink and Dr. Sarah Hampl, American Academy of Pediatrics on

Published in Health & Fitness

As a parent, you want the best possible health for your child. So does your pediatrician. When your child comes to see a pediatrician, for either a well visit or a sick one, we are always asking ourselves what we can do to keep your child healthy. An important step in understanding your child's health is checking if they have excess weight. That's because excess weight — overweight or obesity — can impact their overall health.

In fact, we call obesity a chronic disease because it can affect every part of the body. It can even interfere with the way we feel hunger and fullness and process energy.

Obesity is a disease that can be treated, much like asthma and other chronic conditions.

Childhood obesity often lasts into adulthood if it is not treated. It can result in other diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and orthopedic (bone and joint) problems, to name a few.

The causes of obesity are not limited to just individual or family factors, such as genetics, nutrition and physical activity. They also involve multiple, complex situations in the wider environment that can lead to obesity. Examples include:

— Unjust food systems and economic factors, which can make it hard for some families to access or afford healthy food choices.


— Unsafe physical environments, which can limit opportunities for physical activity, exercise and active play.

— Sources of toxic stress such as exposure to racism. Toxic stress can affect the hormones that regulate weight, among other health effects.

One of the measures we use to check for excess weight is the body-mass index, or BMI. The BMI is a calculation that compares your child's height and weight and lets us know if they are in a healthy range for their age and gender. The BMI itself does not tell us about their health inside their body. However, it is an outward sign of what can be happening inside their body.

If your child's BMI is outside their healthy range, this is referred to as overweight or obesity. Your doctor will want to explore and learn more. This is because excess weight can take a toll on the body. It can affect internal organs, causing inflammation and problems with the immune system and body chemistry, for example. Obesity also impacts mental health. These effects are not visible from the outside.


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