Childhood Obesity vs. Baby Fat

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We often dismiss children who are overweight as simply having "baby fat" or "puppy fat." But is there such a thing? Where do you draw the line between baby fat, which the child will grow out, and regular fat as a result of childhood obesity, which is there to stay?

Experts are divided on whether there really is such a thing as "baby fat." Some studies have shown that kids who were overweight at age 11 were still overweight at age 17. But those studies may not go far enough: Lots of us were chubby in high school, only to lose it in college – say, at 20 or 21, not 17 – and often without having to do much in the way of diet or exercise.

On the other hand, being overweight can cause many problems for kids and adolescents, even if it's "harmless" baby fat. Even young people can develop diabetes and high blood pressure, and if they remain overweight as they grow up, they put them at serious risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Furthermore, children are particularly susceptible to teasing or bullying from their peers over their weight. While adults tend to discriminate against obese people less overtly, kids will taunt each other openly and cruelly. This can dramatically affect a child's self-esteem, academic performance, and personality. Often these social reasons for losing weight can be just as compelling as the medical ones.

So what is the difference between "baby fat" (if there is such a thing) and just plain fat? The body mass index, or BMI, can give you some insight. A child with a BMI of 30 or higher is classified as "obese." Even allowing that some of the excess weight will likely drop off by itself when the child hits a growth spurt, a BMI of 30 or more indicates there is some fat there that needs to be deal with.

BMI from 25-30 is considered "overweight." That may be the gray area if your child is under 10: It could be baby fat, and it could be something more serious. By the time children reach adolescence, though – say age 12 or 13 – the "baby fat" bought to be coming off. If you see an opposite trend developing, where the child is maintaining his or her weight or earning some, it's time to stop assuming it's baby fat. As the studies have shown, fat 12-year-olds tend to be fat 17-year-olds, too.

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Another consideration is how the child feels about it. Many children are teased about their weight yet do not realize there may be something they can do about it. Look for signs that your child is unhappy at school, or happy with his or her physical appearance. Sometimes the best reason to lose weight is not because childhood obesity is unhealthy but simply because you want to.