A recent report from the CDC finds that the pandemic appears to have worsened the nation’s pediatric obesity rates. The percentage of children and teens with obesity accelerated from 19% before the pandemic to 22% today. This represents an increase in weight that the researchers termed “substantial and alarming.” As frontline patient advocates, it is therefore critical that physicians understand pediatric obesity and how to treat it. Here are five important points:

  1. Obesity in children and teens presents different risks than in adults. The metabolic and chronic medical conditions associated with obesity in adults include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Obesity in children, however, is less linked to high rates of these conditions but instead negatively affects their quality of life, with many young people suffering from depression, anxiety, and social stigmatization.
  2. Weight loss is not as critical a parameter in children. Rather than weight loss, the emphasis for children should be on promoting healthy habits and improving body composition. A focus on the entire child and family is vital. With the obesity epidemic, many institutions and private practices have created multidisciplinary clinics that address the factors that contribute to excess weight gain, including psychological, social, nutritional, hormonal, medical, genetic, activity, and neurological/sleep issues.
  3. Numerous advances are taking place across different fronts. Advances in genetic testing are helping clinicians identify abnormalities that contribute to weight gain. There is active research and development of medications that are therapeutic targets for these abnormalities, although there are far fewer options compared with adults. Research has also demonstrated benefits from bariatric surgery for adolescents with multiple severe comorbidities who have not responded to diet, lifestyle, medications, or multidisciplinary interventions.
  4. Focused actions can have a big impact. For both schools and families, providing education and access to healthy, fresh foods can make a real difference. Encouraging more play and exercise can deliver improvements in children’s body composition and cardiovascular health. Educating parents about the pitfalls of too much screen time and checking on mental health issues can also help families move toward better health.
  5. New tools are available to help physicians address pediatric obesity. Many healthcare professionals did not receive training in pediatric obesity medicine and will therefore benefit from self-study. The Obesity Medicine Association’s Self-Assessment Program (SAP) Volume II Pediatrics can serve as an excellent resource, with robust case-based scenarios.

By addressing obesity in pediatric patient care, physicians can potentially slow the progression of metabolic disease, along with numerous serious chronic diseases. And by taking these steps, we can serve as better advocates for our patients’ future health.

To keep up with the latest research, developments and treatments in pediatric obesity, visit the Obesity Medicine Association.