Childhood obesity continues to grow nationwide

September 12, 2023 | Headlines

By Trisha Gedon | OSU AgComm

STILLWATER – The number of children who are overweight or obese is a major public health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity helps shed light on this issue by sponsoring National Childhood Obesity Month in September.

The United States is the highest-ranked country in the world for childhood obesity, said Deana Hildebrand, Oklahoma State University Extension nutrition specialist.

“Nationally, about 20 percent of children and adolescents are obese, and approximately 40 percent are overweight,” Hildebrand said. “Children and adolescents who fall into these categories are at a higher risk for unhealthy weight in adulthood, which can lead to an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Lack of exercise, increased screen time and unhealthy food choices compound the issue.”

In Oklahoma, 13 percent of children ages 2 to 4 who participate in WIC are obese, 17.5 percent of children ages 10 to 17 fall into the obese category and 17.6 percent of high school students are obese.

Hildebrand said this data reflects that as children grow older, the risk of developing obesity is greater.  

In most cases, being overweight or obese results from a complex interaction between personal, family, environmental, genetic and cultural factors. To help combat this problem, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends every child be assessed annually for obesity by measuring the body mass index of children between the ages of 2 and 19.

“Weight problems can be difficult to fix later on, so it’s important to try to avoid the issue from happening to begin with. Family-based approaches for treatment of pediatric obesity are essential for achieving desirable outcomes,” she said. “Additionally, this approach is likely the most appropriate for young children because the family setting has the most immediate influence on food and physical activity behaviors. It’s important for parents to model a healthy lifestyle.”

Meal planning and meal prepping are a couple of tools that can help parents get nutritious meals on the table, even when the family schedule is busy. Children can help with age-appropriate tasks. Hildebrand said that when shopping for food, choosing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and lean protein and avoiding pre-packaged foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats is recommended.

Hildebrand also offers these tips to parents:

• Avoid using food as comfort or a reward. Instead, read a book together or talk a walk.

• Choose a side salad or fruit cup instead of French fries.

• Limit screen time and encourage activities like riding a bike or playing tag.

• Make physical activity a part of the family’s routine. Children should be active for 60 minutes or more each day.

• Be a good role model by choosing healthy foods and being active.

• Children don’t have to belong to the clean plate club. Trust them when they say they are full.

“It’s not just the obesity rate in children that’s alarming. Five years ago, two counties in the state had an adult obesity rate exceeding 40% of the population,” she said. “Today, there are 28 counties with adult obesity exceeding 40 percent of the population. The earlier we start with prevention programs in childhood, the better.” offers nutritional information for all stages of life geared toward families, including mealtime tips, activity ideas, budget-friendly recipes and more. OSU Extension also provides additional child nutrition information online.