Questions and Answers About Childhood ObesityLast Updated : 10 May 2017
1. What is childhood obesity?
Childhood obesity is a condition of extreme overweight in children and adolescents. Living with obesity or overweight, consisting mainly of body fat, can lead to health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, sometimes already at an early age. Children may also develop psychological problems, like depression and anxiety, which further reduces their quality of life. Obesity has significant economic consequences, including high health care costs for both the individual and the society. It is important to understand the causes of weight gain, and to learn how to best prevent and treat it.
2. How many children live with obesity or overweight?
The World Health Organization estimates that the number of Europeans living with obesity has more than tripled since the 1980s, and that around 1 in 3 children aged 6-9 years old have obesity or overweight.1
There are large country differences, with the south of Europe having the highest number of children affected by overweight. The statistics also show that the increase in childhood obesity rates has slowed down in developed countries, but not in low- and middle-income countries, where more children affected by obesity (see the weight categories in question 5).1 Monitoring the prevalence and trends of childhood obesity is important to see if prevention and intervention programmes have an effect.
3. How does obesity develop in children?
Being affected by obesity is the result of a combination of several factors that contribute to an energy imbalance over a longer period of time. The below (non-exhaustive) list includes factors that may increase or decrease the risk.
|Increased Risk||Decreased Risk|
|Pregnancy and early life nutrition:||
4. What are the health consequences of childhood obesity?
Obesity in children is strongly linked to health problems, at present, and later in life. It is likely to be carried over into adulthood, and increases the risk for a variety of physical health problems, including: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems including joint and muscle pain, reduced mobility and balance, obstructive sleep apnoea, asthma, and early entry into puberty.
Stigmatisation, discrimination, and bullying are psychosocial consequences of childhood obesity. This can lead to a low self-esteem, social isolation, low performance at school and a general low mood, such as depression, self-blame, shame and helplessness.
The financial consequences of childhood obesity and associated diseases are significant. It has been estimated that in the European Union, every year about 7% of the national health budget is spent on the obesity-linked diseases.2 As the number of individuals living with obesity is likely to increase, so will the costs for the prevention and treatment.
5. How is obesity in children measured?
Assessing obesity in children is different and more complex than in adults, because children grow and develop at different paces at different ages. To assess a child’s weight category, his/her body mass index (BMI) is compared with the ‘BMI-for-age’ chart (Figure 1). The charts reflect the natural growth patterns of children, and may have small country differences.
Figure 1: The World Health Organisation (WHO) BMI chart for boys and girls aged 5 to 19 years old. The numbers of the coloured lines indicate the weight categories: below -3 is ‘severe thinness’, between -3 and -2 is ‘thinness’, between -2 and 1 is ‘normal weight’, between 1 and 2 is ‘overweight’, and higher than 2 is ‘obesity’3
6. How can obesity in children be prevented?
Parents, care givers, teachers, public authorities, businesses, and the wider community all play a vital role in helping children to develop healthy habits. Some by being role models, others by providing a supportive environment. Small, achievable, and realistic changes are recommended for long-term success.
|Recommendations and suggestions (non-enhaustive)|
For more in-depth information about childhood obesity, read EUFIC’s Childhood Obesity Review.
- Wijnhoven TM, et al. (2014). WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative: body mass index and level of overweight among 6-9-year-old children from school year 2007/2008 to school year 2009/2010. BMC Public Health 14(1):806.
- European Union (2014). EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020.
- World Health Organization (2007). WHO BMI for age growth reference.
- Sleep Foundation press release ‘’National Sleep Foundation Recommends New sleep times’’. Published 2 February 2015.
- World Health Organisation website. Physical activity and young people.