Childhood Obesity in Australia

Fact Sheet

Childhood obesity is a major issue in Australia

In 2007-08, one quarter of Australian children were overweight or obese. The rate of obesity for children (aged 5-17 years) increased from 5.2% in 1995 to 7.5% in 2007-08 (ABS, 2013).

What is childhood obesity?

Childhood obesity is a condition in which a child is significantly overweight for his or her age and height. This is based on measuring the child’s body mass index (BMI).

BMI= weight (kg)/ height^2 (m2).

A child’s height and body weight is constantly fluctuating and therefore, does not follow the standard adult overweight and obese BMI values. According to the age, the corresponding values for overweight (adult BMI= 25) and obese (adult BMI= 30) for children are shown in Table 1 at the bottom of this fact sheet.

Obesity is a result of many factors such as genetics, lifestyle and habits. Children who are overweight are more likely to spend less time engaged in physical activity and more time eating foods that lack nutritional value.

Why is childhood obesity a concern?

  • Children who are overweight or obese will often remain overweight as adults, increasing the risk of developing preventable chronic diseases, including stroke, heart disease, many types of cancers and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Type 2 diabetes is increasingly being reported among children who are overweight. Onset of diabetes in children can lead to heart disease and kidney failure.
  • Children with obesity are at higher risk of developing bone and joint problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea and other sleep disturbances and digestive disorders.
  • Obese children are also more likely to develop eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression, and can negatively impact their school experience and performance.
  • Children with obesity can be bullied and teased more than their normal weight peers. They are also more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression, and lower self-esteem. The effects of this can last into adulthood.
  • Children with obesity are more likely to be obese as adults. This can lead to lifelong physical and mental health problems.

Who is vulnerable?

Low socioeconomic status, lack of education, inadequate exercise, improper nutrition and poor food choices all contribute to childhood obesity. Young children are vulnerable in regards to food that is purchased for the household or served in school lunches.

Low income households and convenience commonly leads to over consumption of processed and packaged energy dense, nutrient poor foods.

What can I do as a parent/guardian to help prevent childhood obesity?

It is essential that children learn healthy habits when they are young to carry forward into their future. These include:

  • Provide children with nutritious foods in healthy portions, including plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products.
  • Include low-fat dairy.
  • Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils and beans for protein.
  • Reduce packaged and processed foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.
  • Encourage your family to drink plenty of water.
  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Encourage your child to engage in at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity.
  • Limit screen time and encourage children to be physically active.
  • Most importantly, as the most influential role-models in children’s lives, it is essential that parents model healthy habits.

When to seek medical help/dietitian

Generally, children are continuously growing so it is not always necessary for them to lose weight. Instead, it is recommended to maintain their current weight as they continue to grow taller.

If you are unsure of how to help your child lose weight, or the changes you have made don’t seem to be helping, then seek support from health professionals such as your GP, dietitian or psychologist.

Table 1: Classification of overweight and obesity for children and adolescents
Age (years) BMI equivalent to overweight BMI equivalent to obese
Males Females Males Females
2 18.41 18.02 20.09 19.81
2.5 18.13 17.76 19.80 19.55
3 17.89 17.56 19.57 19.36
3.5 17.69 17.40 19.39 19.23
4 17.55 17.28 19.29 19.15
4.5 17.47 17.19 19.26 19.12
5 17.42 17.15 19.30 19.17
5.5 17.45 17.20 19.47 19.34
6 17.55 17.34 19.78 19.65
6.5 17.71 17.53 20.23 20.08
7 17.92 17.75 20.63 20.51
7.5 18.16 18.03 21.09 21.01
8 18.44 18.35 21.60 21.57
8.5 18.76 18.69 22.17 22.18
9 19.10 19.07 22.77 22.81
9.5 19.46 19.45 23.39 23.46
10 19.84 19.86 24.00 24.11
10.5 20.20 20.29 24.57 24.77
11 20.55 20.74 25.10 25.42
11.5 20.89 21.20 25.58 26.05
12 21.22 21.68 26.02 26.67
12.5 21.56 22.14 26.43 27.24
13 21.91 22.58 26.84 27.76
13.5 22.27 22.98 27.25 28.20
14 22.62 23.34 27.63 28.57
14.5 22.96 23.66 27.98 28.87
15 23.29 23.94 28.30 29.11
15.5 23.60 24.17 28.60 29.29
16 23.90 24.37 28.88 29.43
16.5 24.19 24.54 29.14 29.56
17 24.46 24.70 29.41 26.69
17.5 24.73 24.85 29.70 29.84
18 25.00 25.00 30.00 30.00

Article authors: Grace Kim, Nutritionist, Bachelor of Health Sciences, U.Q; Rachel Yap, Nutritionist, Bachelor of Health Sciences, U.Q; Selina Box, BA (Psych), UQ Grad Dip Ed, QUT – Published November 2017.