According to surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), between 2017 and 2020, nearly 20% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 were considered obese. Given the prevalence of this issue and its grave implications for public health, it’s clear that interventions are necessary, and health care providers — particularly nurses — are among the first lines of defense.
As more data is collected, nursing interventions for childhood obesity continue to grow more sophisticated and effective. Pursuing an advanced nursing education can help clinicians develop the skills and knowledge to help overcome the nation’s obesity epidemic.
What Causes Childhood Obesity?
Childhood obesity can stem from numerous factors. Many of these are lifestyle issues, including habits and behaviors that are learned at an early age, while others have to do with genetic predispositions or socioeconomic status. Some of the most prevalent risk factors for obesity include the following:
- Diet: Children who consume high-calorie, high-sugar foods are far more likely to be obese. Though candy and desserts are certainly culprits, soda and sugary drinks are the primary source of empty calories.
- Sedentary lifestyle: In the age of the internet, many children fill their downtime with video games and television programs rather than meaningful exercise. Additionally, many of the programs that children watch feature advertisements for foods packed with empty calories, which only exacerbates the issue.
- Genetics: The CDC notes that while obesity may not be directly genetic, genes do play some role in energy balance, which impacts the rate at which the body burns the calories it consumes.
- Socioeconomics: CDC data shows that children who grow up in low-income households tend to be obese at a much higher rate than those who come from high-income households. Variables like limited resources, “food deserts” where fresh produce is generally unavailable, and even a lack of safe areas to exercise outdoors can all contribute to obesity.
- Medication: Some children may be prone to obesity due to the medications they take. Many medications for depression and anxiety as well as steroids used to treat autoimmune disorders can lead to weight gain.
- Psychology: Stress is one of the top contributors to obesity in both children and adults. “Stress eating” and turning to food for comfort is quite common, especially in children who have experienced trauma and those who observe these behaviors in the adults in their lives.
Effective Interventions for Childhood Obesity
Interventions for childhood obesity may include programs and educational resources that are intended to prevent or reverse obesity in children. Because obesity is a health concern, health care providers are uniquely qualified to intervene.
Nurse practitioners, and particularly those who work as family nurse practitioners (FNPs), pediatric nurse practitioners (PNPs), and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs), have some of the most important roles in fighting childhood obesity. They work directly with families and children on a day-to-day basis, allowing them to implement a wide range of evidence-based interventions.
Some common interventions to help combat childhood obesity include the following:
Family Healthy Weight Programs
CDC-recognized Family Healthy Weight Programs are specifically designed to combat obesity beginning in childhood. These intensive programs focus on everything from diet and exercise to behavioral changes in an effort to help curb the obesity epidemic.
Clinical Growth Charts and BMI Calculators
Health care providers have relied on clinical growth charts and body mass index (BMI) calculators for decades. These simple tools give doctors and nurses a baseline by which to measure their patients’ growth, weight, and body mass indices. As such, they can be used to determine when to implement appropriate interventions.
Children don’t always have the ability to choose their own foods at home, but they can learn how to make healthy choices at school and at home. Nutritional advice should also extend to children’s caregivers since they make the food-purchasing decisions for the household. Giving concrete examples of good foods versus bad foods can help children and their families achieve and maintain healthy weights.
Encouraging Exercise and Calorie Reduction
Weight gain occurs when children consistently consume more calories than they burn. Encouraging children to exercise regularly is important. According to the CDC, children between the ages of 3 and 5 should be physically active throughout the day, while children from ages 6 through 17 should aim for at least one hour of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise per day.
Counseling and Mental Health Services
A study published in BMC Medicine in 2020 showed a significant link between childhood trauma and the risk for obesity, both in childhood and later in life. Interventions for childhood obesity should include screenings for trauma and referrals to counseling and mental health services when needed.
The Roles of Nurse Leadership and Education
While children’s health care providers are responsible for carrying out many of these interventions, individuals who choose to specialize in nurse leadership and nursing education can also drive powerful change and help shape the interventions of tomorrow.
Nurse leaders often study informatics to better understand how interventions work, and many are responsible for designing, developing, and implementing new intervention policies at the organizational level. Meanwhile, nurse educators are responsible for teaching future generations of nurses how to recognize risk factors and warning signs and when to implement intervention strategies.
Take a Stand Against Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States, but children who learn healthy habits early in life will often carry those habits with them into adulthood. Early interventions for childhood obesity are vital to stemming the tide against this epidemic, and nurses have a vital role to play in developing and implementing effective interventions.
Explore the online MSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Regis College and learn how it can help you develop the skills to become a successful nurse practitioner, nurse leader, or nurse educator.