90 Percent of Overweight Children Not Properly Diagnosed:
What Does This Mean for Your Child?


Studies have shown that a full one-third of American children are overweight or obese. But a study by researchers at The MetroHealth System and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland found that just one-third of children who are overweight or obese are actually diagnosed.

Only 10 percent of overweight children in a recent study received a proper diagnosis from their doctors.

In the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers reviewed body mass index (BMI) measurements for over 60,700 children between the ages of 2 and 18 (BMI is a standard used for measuring your weight to height ratio). The measurements showed that 19 percent of the children were overweight, 23 percent were obese and 8 percent were severely obese.

However, while 76 percent of severely obese children and 54 percent of obese children were diagnosed, only 10 percent of overweight children received a proper diagnosis.

“ … This is a bit of a wake-up call to pediatricians that as many as 90% of overweight children are not being properly diagnosed,” David C. Kaelber, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study, told Science Daily. “Better identification of this group of children who have just crossed into the ‘unhealthy’ weight category is essential for early intervention, which will hopefully prevent not only a childhood of increased health problems, but also what now often becomes an ongoing battle through adulthood with life-long issues.”

The Importance of Detecting Childhood Obesity Early

An unrelated study last year found that out of 111 overweight children, half were overweight at age 2, and 90 percent by their 5th birthday. As children get older, losing weight can become increasingly difficult, as according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, a child who is obese between the ages of 10 and 13 has an 80 percent chance of becoming an obese adult.

These extra pounds can quickly lead to a host of health problems. Among them is type 2 diabetes, which experts suggest may become an epidemic for young adults as a result of the childhood obesity epidemic.

“The full impact of the childhood obesity epidemic has yet to be seen because it can take up to 10 years or longer for obese individuals to develop type 2 diabetes,” Joyce Lee, M.D., M.P.H , a University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital pediatric endocrinologist, told Science Daily. “Children who are obese today are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as young adults.”

Further the longer a person has diabetes, the more likely they are to develop complications such as blindness and kidney failure.

Overweight children are also at an increased risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight as an adult. Perhaps most concerning of all, a review by obesity researcher David Ludwig of Children’s Hospital Boston, epidemiologist S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and colleagues found that if the current epidemic of child and adolescent obesity continues, life expectancy could be shortened by two to five years in the coming decades.

Many Parents Don’t Realize Their Children are Obese

After surveying over 2,000 adults and taking height and weight measurements of their children, researchers from the University of Michigan found that among parents with an obese or extremely overweight child between the ages of 6 and 11:

  • 43 percent said their child was “about the right weight”
  • 37 percent believed the child was “slightly overweight”
  • 13 percent said “very overweight”
  • A smaller percentage said the child was “slightly underweight”

“It suggests to me that parents of younger kids believe that their children will grow out of their obesity, or something will change at older ages,” said Dr. Matthew M. Davis, a professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at University of Michigan, who led the study.

In reality, realizing your child is not at a healthy weight, and helping them to address it in a positive, proactive way, is one of the most caring things you can do for their health.

Helping Children Reach (and Stay at) an Ideal Weight

Kids gain weight for many of the same reasons that adults do, and often this is tied to eating too many unhealthy foods and not staying active enough. Stressful life events, such as divorce, a move, or a death in the family can also contribute.

Helping your child adopt healthier lifestyle habits should be a positive step taken by your entire family, and should include your good example and support. The following steps, made gradually over time, can go a long way toward helping your child to not only lose weight but also lead a healthier life:

  1. Eat meals together as a family. Studies show children whose families ate meals together often consumed more fruits and vegetables and fewer snack foods than those who did not.
  1. Decrease the time your child watches TV and plays video games or spends at the computer. Numerous studies link TV watching in particular to obesity, as it encourages snacking, exposes kids to junk-food marketing messages and promotes inactivity.

Pack your child a healthy lunch for school to keep them satisfied (and less likely to choose junk foods from the school cafeteria or vending machines).

  1. Avoid using food as a reward.
  1. Use healthy foods as snacks, and keep an ample supply of them around the house.
  1. Encourage your child to do active things like going for walks, walking the dog, washing the car, playing sports or tag with friends, etc. You can also enroll kids in specially designed exercise programs for kids. Recent research suggests that this type of exercise not only reduces depression and anxiety, but also helps to reduce anger and aggressive behavior in kids. You can even exercise along with your child.
  1. Limit fast food meals.
  1. Include more nutritious meals in your family’s daily diet (try the recipes in “Alive in 5”: Raw Gourmet Meals in Five Minutes for some delicious (and fast!) ideas)
  1. Eliminate sweetened drinks like soda from your house.
  1. Plan your meals for the week so you don’t end up going for take-out at the last minute.
  1. Pack a healthy lunch for your child to take to school.


Pediatrics Vol. 123 No. 1 2009, pp. e153-e158






American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry