Ready for some good news about overweight and obesity among children? Rates are now decreasing or leveling off for the first time since Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office.

The proportion of overweight children ages 2 to 5 has dropped to less than 10 percent. And the obesity rate among children ages 6 to 11, after many years of increasing rates, is now holding steady at 18 percent.

Why are rates improving? Parents. Parents are responsible for what their children eat, how much they eat and what exercise and activity they do.

When parents make sure their children have healthy meals with the right portion sizes, they become part of the solution. And lower childhood obesity rates follow. 

Like many interventions in early childhood, the sooner children can be identified as having a weight problem and helped, the better. But sometimes parents are slow to accept that their children may have a weight problem.

What Exactly Does Overweight Mean?

What counts as overweight? Overweight and obesity are defined in terms of body mass index (BMI), which is calculated with a formula that uses height and weight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overweight means having a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and below the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex.

Children are generally considered obese when their BMI is at or above the 95th percentile for others of the same age and sex.

How Helpful Is Measuring BMI?

Some conversations about weight can be difficult. Kammer Hufnagle, a parent of two boys, is concerned that her children’s doctor is paying too much attention to the BMI index.

“It’s never been a question of whether or not they are active,” Hufnagle said. “They have always been active and in sports. They’ve always been at the top of the charts for height and weight. So when we see our doctor, we get a lot of questions about what they are doing, what they are eating. I feel like they are implying that they are overweight.”

Some parents feel that the BMI chart wrongly puts a “fat” label on kids. Rachelle Johnston says her pediatrician told her that her 5-year-old son’s BMI is too high, in front of her son. “Now he tells everyone that the doctor told him he was fat,” she said.

One high school student-athlete from Indiana made news recently when she refused to calculate her BMI for a school assignment. She said that method was outdated and would lead to poor self-esteem for her female classmates.

Is that true? According to Dr. Jerald Zarin, Blue Cross and Blue Shield medical director and pediatrician, the BMI is the right place to start. “While BMI is not perfect and is only valid after age 2 or 3, it’s the best we have,” he said.

Dr. Zarin said BMI is a useful measure of fat content for most kids. But in cases where a child is an athlete who has a lot of muscle mass, the BMI may not be as useful because those children have higher levels of muscle mass. Muscle causes increased weight without fat.

Your Child’s Doctor Can Help

“The best thing is to check with the child’s pediatrician about weight and how to handle it,” Dr. Zarin said. “Different ages require different types of dietary intake, and the best person to help is the pediatrician.”

“It’s important that the family eat healthy at all ages and watch fast food and junk food intake,” he added.

During a well-child visit, your pediatrician or family practice doctor will check your child’s height and weight and can also offer advice on nutrition and healthy weight.

The doctor may also offer other preventive exams, including screening and counseling for obesity.

These preventive services may be covered at no cost as a benefit of your health plan membership when services are provided by a doctor in your health plan’s network.*

What Can Parents Do?

Helping your family maintain a healthy lifestyle takes more than just a quick chat at the doctor’s office.

Nicki Burke, executive director of ProActive Kids, says that her organization began educating families with overweight children when her husband, a doctor, realized that families needed more information and guidance than an annual well-child visit could offer.

Some families struggle with a lack of access to fresh food, too few safe places to get exercise, or other barriers to healthy living. But Burke sees one problem that every family can control: portion size.

In some cases, because of busy schedules and lack of time for meal prep, parents are giving kids unlimited access to snacks. Not fruit and vegetables, but processed foods in oversized containers.

How can parents manage better? “Kids learn by example,” Burke says. “Parents need to model good behavior. There are plenty of good resources out there. Parents and kids can work together to find them.”

Need some help managing mealtime? Try these ideas:

  • Look at your family’s schedule and try to set up at least three family meals each week. Plan ahead and cook meals that can be frozen and reheated, such as soups and casseroles. Frozen vegetables can come to the rescue in many recipes.
  • Use MyPlate to help determine portion size and build a healthy eating plan.
  • Allow kids to plan at least one family meal a week. If they can help prepare it, that’s even better.
  • Try to avoid fast food during mealtime. Use simple family meals as an opportunity to introduce your kids to new, healthy foods.
  • Need a break from doing dishes one evening? Have a picnic, indoors or out, with paper plates and plastic utensils.