Overweight Four-Year-Olds? New Study Says that 1 out of Every 5 Is Obese

Posted April 9, 2009 by

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A new study came out this week that said that 1 out of every 5 four-year-olds in America is obese. (That’s a little over 18 percent of the kids who participated in this ethnically-diverse sampling, and children of color are at an even higher risk.)

In an article on CNN.com, researchers pointed out that kids are now becoming overweight even before they run across vending machines, soda pop, and the serious junk food binges that many teens and pre-teens get into.

Part of the weight-gain in this young age group has to do with the fact that kids are spending less time being active and more time in front of the TV. Obesity this young is disturbing because it can actually lead to heart disease, diabetes and even strokes among children, said Dr. Tom Robinson, Director for the Center for Healthy Weight at the Stanford University School of Medicine.  Experts also agree that it’s much harder to lose weight later on in life if you start out with an obesity problem as a young child.

If your child needs to lose weight:

A few tips offered by Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, in the CNN article:

  • Don’t make excuses for your child and compare him or her to other kids who may be heavier.
  • Focus on being healthy, not on obesity. Keep it positive.
  • Switch from soda, juice and other sugary drinks to water.
  • Try to make sure your child gets at least one hour of exercise per day.

We are already starting to cut down on the sugary drinks in our house, and offering water and milk more often. What do you do to keep your child healthy? Any nutritional changes your family is contemplating? Please share your ideas…I think most of us could stand to make a few changes this spring!


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Jayjayme (Edit) Report

    I’m interested in these moms who are worried about their children gaining weight… Do you allow your children to eat at school, or do they pack lunches?
    Does the school provide snacks, and do they have vending machines? Do your kids get to pick their choices there, or what is the deal with your child and school?

    The reason I bring this up is that school lunches are not, generally speaking, healthy… In some cases, they even classify pizza as a vegetable which is like saying a a pineapple upside down cake is a fruit because it’s got pineapple in it… Not saying this is the culprit for your childs weight gains, just saying if you’re trying to figure out why, make sure you are looking at things like this…
    Also, parties that the child goes to, get togethers, family wise… How many meals does your child eat out of the house, out of your vision that you aren’t seeing? These can be destructive too because these times are viewed as ‘free’ times where there’s no paying attention to how bad for you something is… Everyone’s eatting like that, and no one is paying attention to what your child is really eatting.

    I came from a home where food was not restricted, and everyone ate huge portions, seconds were allowed, and usually they didn’t regulate thirds too much either. We ate salads vegetables and fruits and all that, sure.. But we also had ranch dressing on our salads, fruits with sugar sprinkled on, steamed vegetables covered in butter and salt… And plenty of those things…
    Please, parents, take it from me that this is NOT a way to raise your child. When I hit pre-teen and teen years I was mercilessly teased, and even into adulthood I didn’t know anything was wrong with what I was doing because it’s how my family had always ate, and because eating was one of those things that was never regulated I could do it whenever and however I wanted, making my own choices, without anyone giving me greif… Guess what I did when I came home from school from an entire school day of being mercilessly teased about how fat I was?
    As a result, I am extremely obese and fighting with it every day. Once you get to obese status, especially the morbid obese category, it’s even HARDER to lose the weight than if you’re just a little overweight…
    I don’t agree that you shouldn’t limit food to your children… I just think you need to do it in ways that won’t be destructive to your childs mental stability. I’m not saying stave your child or make a big deal of it, but do something, rather than nothing.

    I really have a sensitive spot for this issue because of how I grew up, and what I know now, and how long it took me to figure it all out once I did become an adult, and was on my own. It really is amazing what something as small as everyday meals and snacks can make an impact on the mental health and future lifestyle of your children…
    If you have a child who is overweight, I don’t have answers that will magically make it better, but I am pleading with any parent out there to make something happen about it while they are young, and under your care, because I am what happens when you don’t. I tell you from experience that being stared at every time you go out in public, to the grocery store, a video store, to pump gas… in horror because ‘how did they get to be so fat’ is not where you want YOUR child to be in the future… And it’s easy for simple eatting habits to turn into that…

    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Dear Jayjayme:
      Thank you so much for sharing your moving story. I’m so sorry to hear about the bullying that you endured in school because of your weight, and also what you are still going through today. I think you’re right about limiting portions when your child is overweight, and also about being aware of what’s being added to those vegetables and fruits. Talking to your kids about nutrition is also important — let them know that white bread might taste good but has little nutrition, and have them eat something like fruit and hummus along with it, or even swap the white bread for a whole grain cracker instead. (Do kids always listen? No. But eventually your words will sink in, especially if you’re modeling the same eating choices yourself. It’s really about learning more about health and then changing behavior, when you come down to it.)

      You’re so right about school lunches, too — they are generally not that healthy, and that’s a travesty in my book. Things are changing slowly — our public school added a salad bar and also buys produce from local farms when possible. Baby steps, but at least we’re talking about the problem as a country now and trying to move in the right direction.

      Thank you again for your insightful comments and please keep in touch!

  2. My3girls (Edit) Report

    Gablilmom: I really empathize with you. I have three wonderful daughters. My middle one has always been a big, thick, beautiful girl. She is a very healthy eater and relatively active. Everyone in our family gets one “sweet” a day. We all can choose what that sweet is and when we have it. I’ve really tried not to create control issues. We try to always have balanced meals with lots of fiber. With my middle one, it seems we are battling something we can’t beat. Up until recently she has always been bigger than what she eats. She seems to crave carbs and sugar in a way that I have not seen before with her. We have had her at pediatric endocrinologists and learned her cholesterol was elevated, probably due to being over weight. At times her thyroid was slightly high but further blood showed it was all fine. It’s always bothered me because I know how hard the world can be for over weight kids.she is seven now and recently said in a dressing room, ” I hate my belly”. We talked about her feelings. I validated how difficult it can be to dislike something about yourself but as long as she has a healthy balanced lifestyle bit physically and mentally, she’ll always be fabulous. She can be tough, spicy at times but I know how important it is for me to be strong for her. Incant make it my issue. She needs me to be her rock because the world could get down on her, on all of us at times.

    Healthy, balanced eating with good portion control and exercise is so important but for me, it seems like there is something else playing a part. Who knows, one day we might figure it out. Either way I hope all my daughters learn to love their own shape and understand we all have different shapes. Good luck to you.

  3. RUDY (Edit) Report

    GABLILMOM: I understand you and feel what you are saying COMPLETELY!! My 4 year old, 43 pound lil girl sounds just like your 5 year old. I also am 5’3, 125 pounds and her daddy is 6’2 53″ chest size. We feed her the very best we can. Lots of fruit for snacks, my daughter would choose water over soda any day of the week, but yes she wants those meat and taters. I also have her in T-ball and dance. If you would like my opinion, as long as we are paying attention to our children (which we are or we wouldnt be concerned) and do our very best for our children as far as activities and diet are concerned, educate them on what is healthy and what is not, and tell them everyday how beautiful and special they are too us no matter what, I am confident everything will work out as its supposed too. Maybe we are pananoid as you said but we want whats best for our children because we love them so much and it sounds like you are doing the best things for your child as am i. I had a question for ya though. Did your child put on weight a little quickly at a certain age or was she “very healthy” from infancy? My daughter was very thin up until the summer she turned three. By winter months she went up two sizes for some reason, and her activities actually had increased and diet stayed about the same. I was just curious. I also feel my child it may be medical, but I could be wrong. As far as dieting goes though the nutritionist my husband saw though said portion size is no bigger that your fist.

  4. PJ007 (Edit) Report

    I think that weight should just be one small part of the child. Make healthy choices. Be careful not to mention the word diet to a young child because it can cause eating disorders. While your child and your family are making healthier choices, protect your child from rude people. A neighbor asked me what my daughter eats out of the blue in front of my child. I asked her, “why do you ask?”. She took a step back and said how much her child weighs. I thought it was a rude question. I then asked her what she eats. I don’t get why adults feel they can bully a child. The parent’s child who asked about my child’s weight has a child with social issues. I didn’t ask “how is your child doing socially lately?”. Sometimes kids are overweight for medical reasons that are not other people’s business. I do think it is good to encourage kids to eat healthy and at the youngest age possible not to smoke.

    Always defend your child against rude people.

  5. aspecter (Edit) Report

    I’m a University of Colorado intern working for a cool new website called zisboombah.com. I wanted to let you know about ZisBoomBah.com whose main focus is children’s nutrition through an interactive game that teaches them how to eat healthy. We are very excited about ZisBoomBah and the potential to empower children to make healthy choices.

    With childhood obesity on the rise we thought the kids needed a tool to help them battle this disease. ZisBoomBah is an innovative website that challenges conventional wisdom and develops tools to empower children and inspire parents to live a fun, active and healthy life. ZisBoomBah’s free online tool “Pick Chow!” allows children to create meals by dragging and dropping foods onto their virtual plate. The “Add it Up!” meters show the nutritional values in a fun and easy way and rates each meal with one to five stars – a feature that helps children learn quickly how their choices make a difference in creating a well-balanced meal. Children can send their “chow” to their parents, who then receive an email with what their child has chosen to be a healthy choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with the menu, recipe, shopping list and coupons.

    This website is completely free and is a really fun way to bring the family together while helping to fight childhood obesity!

  6. Dr. Mom7 (Edit) Report


    In response to the above mom who is freaked out by her child’s ever enlarging appetite, and likewise her ever enlarging girth. To some extent it is true, you are what you eat. So to keep this simple, your daughter eats meat and potatoes, thus her body habitus is shaped like a square. Are you really surprised? Are you willing to change the kinds of foods you buy and bring into your household and feed your family, or are you going to continue to make excuses about your childs genes, hormonal metabolism, etc? You need to be honest in order to really make positive change. Everytime your child asks for food you limit her to one plate of meat and potatoes. Sounds like she is fiber starved. Fiber fills you up and leaves you filling more satisfied and less hungry down the road. How about a banana, whole wheat toast with apple butter spread and light cream cheese? Beans are also high in fiber, and low in fat, so this is a terrific, cheap and healthy meat alternative. Put it in soups (navy bean with oregano and a splash of olive oil is wonderful)and have soup and salad for dinner with fruit for dessert. She will be stuffed and healthy. A couple questions for you then. Since when is meat and potatoes health food? Also, are we talking about red meat, chuck, sirloin, ribs, pork chops,hotdogs? First thing to look at is the type of meat you consume and make the switch from red, fatty meats to white, leaner meats/proteins like chicken and fish, and don’t forget you need two servings of fish per week. Also, the potatoes; are they french fried, drowning in butter and sour cream, mashed and piled high with gravy? Biscuits on the side? Sounds real healthy… now…there are alot of options here too, stick with keeping it simple in all things, especially when it comes to food preparation. Bake it or boil it, better yet, steam your foods. But that would mean you would need to provide vegetables for your family. Something you didn’t mention in your blog. Does your child get an apple or pear when she screams hunger, a bowl of hot oatmeal or shredded wheat with skim milk for breakfast, low fat yoghurt and carrots for an after school snack? Studies show that limiting food availability only leads to food seeking behavior. So the 1 plate and lock the refridgerator door policy doesn’t work and will ensure she sneaks food behind your back. Your daughter has a BMI of 98%, which means she is obese/heavier compared to other children her height. This is significant because studies show that BMI’s>95% in young children are a significant predictor of future morbidity/& problems with heart disease, diabetes, and other medical problems. Your daughter has the additional difficulty of sufferng from asthma, which if not well controlled will prevent her from exercising adequately on a daily basis and tends to encourage sedentary behaviors. By the way, how much sit time does your daughter spend per day? It should be no more than 2 hours of TV, computer, or video time per day, otherwise, the pounds go up incrementally. How much juice does she drink per day? Many people think this is a healthy option, but the amount of juice recommended per day for a child is 4 ounces or half a cup. Beyond that and it is extra sugar and calories. Just give her water, or flavored water, but read the labels and check the calorie contents on “healthy drinks” too. So bottom line, take home advice. Keep it simple. Stop being the food patrol. Buy only healthy foods, fresh produce mainly, and no prepackaged junk. If you want to have cookies for a once a week treat/special occasion, then bake them yourself. You’ll save money and find they are tastier, as well as better for you without the added preservatives. Make oatmeal raisin cookies for a fiber boost. Teach your daughter to cook and eat healthy by the example you set, she is watching you closely. Remember 5-3-3-2-2-1 rule. 5 fruits and vegetables per day, 3 meals per day (including 3 glasses of skim milk), 2 healthy and lowfat snacks/day, limit TV/video game time to 2 hours per day and include 1 hour of exercise per day. Hope this helps anddon’t give up hope, you can do it! Dr Mom7

  7. betty (Edit) Report

    As a person who has struggled with weight issues most of my adult life, I have after years of dieting, losing weight and regaining weight, realized that weight issues are a consequence of subconscious thoughts about ourselves. If you have an overweight child, look at how you reject them and how they reject themselves. You will find the answers. It is not the food. Once you have found the answers, the food is not attractive. You will be able to eat to live and will not make bad choices. I have been working at releasing all of my childhood issues for a long time and am finally able to go through my day without thinking about food and my weight is coming down easily. When your child misbehaves use strategies like humor, distraction, hug them and hold them close while you tell them to calm down. Then have a discussion about their fears. Be there for them. Do not reject them and you will find that you learn what they need and how you can give it to them and how they can ultimately help themselves in any situation.

  8. GabLilMom (Edit) Report

    I have a 5 year old who is 50lbs. She is on the short side, but built like a brick. Had a doc appt today for k-shots. Brought the subject up, she is at 95% for weight, 42″. I am freaked by the whole thing. She is hungry all the time! Cries when I do not give her more food. I have to cut her off at one plate. Her daycare lady does the same. She does not eat junk food. She likes meat and potatoes type meals. My other daughter is tall and very thin. I have to get her to eat half the time. It seems like the 5 year old will all of a sudden just “blow up”. She does not seem to go through much of a growth spurt after though. Her dad is a large man, 52″ shoulder 6ft, lineback type! I am 5’2″ about 125. I guess she got my height and his build. I feel like she will struggle her whole life. She is very athletic, starting t-ball, can hit it down the block. My kids are very active, even in the winter. She does gymnastics. Passed level 1 bars after 3 months. I feel like people look at me like I am stuffing her full of Happy Meals 10 times a day. Asked the doc about thyroid issue or something like that. I keep thinking has to be something medical. I am probably just paranoid. She is my “good child” so to speak. She has asthma/allergies, but that’s about it. Please let me know if any one has or had this problem and what results were. Thanks so much for input, I can’t be the only one.

  9. kaypal (Edit) Report

    There a many things you can do to help your children to stay at a healthy weight. First is role model good eating habits and exercise habits. I run several programs for youth that involve both physical activity and nutrition. In my experience, the child usually eats like the rest of the family eats and if the parents can’t help their child by changing the whole families habits, then it is much more difficult for the child. Parents need to understand what they are feeding their kids.

  10. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Dear Mamichula: I think this is definitely a question for your granddaughter’s pediatrician. He or she will be able to tell you if that’s the normal weight for your granddaughter’s height, etc. Good luck, and good for you for raising your grandchildren!

  11. mamichula (Edit) Report

    I am raising my two granddaughters who are going to be 4 yars old in June. One of them weights almost 50 pounds but she is tall for her age. Is she considered overweight at this age?

  12. Elizabeth GP (Edit) Report

    Get rid of the television. We removed cable from our home years ago. Children will get moving if they don’t have couch sitting as an alternative. Also, institute rules like eating food while sitting in the kitchen only. This will make children and parents think before they put food in thier mouths.

  13. Annita Woz (Edit) Report

    I was at Disney this past week and noticed not only obese children, but nearly every parent that was there was also sporting a wide middle. We truly are suffering from being an affluent society– and it is actually worse with the recession– cheap food, largely full of sugar and refined grains that have the nutritional value of cardboard are filling our kids tummies and filling out our kids tummies. We have used winter as an excuse to not be so active– good thing spring is here! I plan to go hiking more at the dogpark with our dogs (who really do look a lot like their owners– a little thick around the middle!) The other thing we do is sports- the kids are always signed up for something.

  14. kathy pride (Edit) Report

    Nicole (age 9) was actually in the 95th % for weight at her last check up. She had put quite a bit of weight on this past year, and it seemed like she was just eating all the time.

    We focus on making healthy choices as much as we can and had switched to water, or if they are going to have soda, making it diet. But this last checkup got to her and she decided to do something about it herself, asking if things are healthy.

    I am really impressed with how she has done. She could be the poster child for all of us.

    She asks if food is healthy and if the answer is no, she doesn’t eat it.
    We were away recently and some desserts that others were having looked good, so she would ask for just a bite and only take a bite.

    We keep lots of fruit in the house, and if we have ice cream, it is the reduces fat or better yet sorbet or sugar free fruit bars.

    An hour of excercise a day is a lot…but she swam this winter which helped.

    She is finally starting to eat breakfast and has chosen to pack her own lunch making wraps with turkey, no condiments.

    Not bad, eh?



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