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Pediatric Obesity Programs Help Youngsters Lose Weight

Healthcare in  the News

-- Spurred by a new report that weight-loss programs for kids work, federal health experts this week issued new recommendations encouraging doctors to screen school-aged children and teens and send them to treatment programs if they're obese. 

Photo of two children eating a nutritious meal and a father with his hands around their shoulders

Five years ago, the same panel -- the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) -- advised against routine obesity screening in children because there was no evidence that weight management programs were effective in managing obesity in children and teens.

Since then, a series of clinical trials have shown that intensive weight management programs that include diet, physical activity, and behavioral counseling can help. "So we felt compelled to change the recommendations," explains Ned Calonge, M.D., UPSTF panel chair and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health in Denver.

"This is an encouraging message. There's hope for successful treatment, and we hope that parents will ask their pediatrician if their child needs intervention," says Dr. Calonge.

Changing Behavior Early Can Pay Big Dividends

Addressing the problem as early as possible is best, rather than waiting until your child is grown, says Dr. Calonge. "Once you become an overweight adult, it's more difficult to change your behavior," he notes. "We do believe that childhood behaviors can be changed, and investing in changing these behaviors in kids is an investment that can pay off lifelong."

Goutham Rao, M.D., clinical director of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, agrees, calling the recommendations "a major step in the right direction. The longer you wait to address obesity, the more habits are entrenched. The younger children are, the easier it is to make changes."

The panel's new recommendations, published online in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics, will be in the February issue.

Successful Programs Still Rare and Expensive

Although recent statistics suggest childhood obesity may be leveling off, one out of every six U.S. children is still obese, according data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics released last week.

The new recommendations urge doctors to screen all children between ages 6 and 18 for obesity. Doctors measure a child's height and weight to calculate body mass index (BMI), and then compare that to other children. Kids whose BMI is greater than the 95th percentile for their gender and age are considered obese and should be referred to a weight management program, according to the new recommendations.

Unfortunately, the weight management programs that have been shown to succeed with children are not easy to find, says Dr. Rao. "Very intense programs like this are usually very expensive and private-pay, and they may take in few kids," he explains.

That should change as more children are referred to the programs, and more insurers pay for treatment, according to Dr. Calonge. He points out that when mammograms were first recommended, few centers were available to address this need, but that hospitals and private companies quickly filled the gap.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.

Help Your Child Stay at a Healthy Weight 

Children need to balance the calories they take in from food and beverages with the amount they need for physical activity and normal growth. To help them develop healthy eating and exercise habits: 

  • Make favorite dishes healthier by lowering calories, adding fruits and vegetables, using less salt and sugar, and choosing lean meats and poultry
  • Serve reasonably-sized portions
  • Curb high-calorie temptations that contain lots of fat and sugar or salt
  • Encourage kids to stay active. Experts recommend children and teens get at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week.
  • Limit time spent on television, video games, and the computer to no more than two hours a day. 

Finally, experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the goal for overweight and obese children and teens is to slow weight gain while still allowing normal growth and development. Don't put them on a weight-loss diet without first asking your doctor. 

Always consult your physician for more information.

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