Navigation

Overweight in children

Expert reviewer, Dr Ade Adeniyi, Bupa Clinics GP
Next review due January 2025

Overweight and obesity in children is when they have too much fat in their body. It’s a very common problem, affecting up to four in 10 children by the time they leave primary school. Being overweight can cause health problems, especially in later life. It can also affect your child’s self-esteem and mental wellbeing.

There’s a lot you can do to help your child reach a healthier weight. This includes making some healthy changes to their diet, and encouraging them to be more active. This works best if you get the whole family involved.

Child's hand reaching for sweets in a bowl

Is my child overweight?

Children are all different shapes and sizes. Boys are different from girls and your child will grow and develop at their own pace. This constant change and variation can make it hard to know if your child is a healthy weight. But your child may be at risk of being overweight if you notice they:

  • regularly eat the same size food portions as yourself or an older sibling or ask for more food during meals
  • wear clothes made for older children because they fit better
  • struggle to keep up with their friends when playing or at school during physical education (PE) lessons

If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, contact your GP surgery. They’ll be able to compare your child’s weight to what’s expected at that age.

How the GP works out if your child is a healthy weight

Your GP or health visitor will calculate your child’s body mass index (BMI) from their height and weight. There are online sites that calculate body mass index and tell you whether you are a healthy weight, but these are just for adults. Growing children need to be compared to other children the same age and sex. So your GP will use special charts to see how your child’s BMI compares with what is expected. You can ask them to show you the chart, and explain how they tell if your child is ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ (very overweight).

Your GP or health visitor will also check for other health conditions related to being overweight. They might measure your child’s waist too. If they think there’s an issue with your child’s weight, they’ll ask about their diet and how active they are. They may also ask about any problems that may be caused by their weight. Your GP will probably also ask if anyone else in the family is overweight, as it can often be an issue that affects families.

 Worried about your BMI?

Get a picture of your current health and potential future health risks with one of our health assessments. Find out more about health assessments >

Lifestyle changes for reaching a healthier weight

If your child is overweight, by taking action now you can improve their health in the future. The best way for anyone to achieve and keep to a healthy weight is to make lifestyle changes. You can help your child by:

  • making healthy changes to their diet
  • encouraging them to be more physically active
  • reducing the amount of time they’re just sitting still (sedentary)

Think about changes you can make as a family to adopt healthier eating habits and become more active. Doing this together as a family works better long term because it helps you all make permanent changes to your lifestyle. And don’t forget, children copy adults. If they see you eating well and exercising more, they’re more likely to join in.

You may find it helps to set goals for your child, with lots of reward and praise when they meet them. (Choose rewards that aren’t based on food.) Set smaller goals to start with, so that they can achieve them easily and are encouraged to carry on. And make sure your child knows that they are loved and important, no matter what.

Food and drink

Aim for the whole family to eat a healthy balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables. Avoid ‘fad diets’ or diets that are very restricted.

Here are some more tips to help your child reach and keep to a healthy weight.

  • Keep an eye on portion size – start with a small portion and let your child ask for more if they’re still hungry.
  • Don’t insist that your child clears their plate at each meal.
  • Try to have regular meals, to help your child avoid snacking and grazing.
  • If possible, have more meals where the family eats together as a social occasion.
  • Discourage eating in front of the TV or other electronic device.
  • Replace sugary drinks with diluted squash, or water. You can use sparkling water if your child likes fizzy drinks.
  • Choose healthy snack alternatives if your child is hungry between meals.
  • Ask your child to help you write shopping lists so you can choose healthier options together.
  • Limit fast food and takeaway food which are often high in calories.

Physical activity

Lots of children spend their time using computers or watching television and playing video games, rather than exercising. Try to limit these ‘screen time’ activities. Some experts say children should have no more than two hours of screen time a day.

There are guidelines on how much physical activity children need to be healthy.

  • Children under five should be active for at least 180 minutes per day. This includes things like walking, dancing, skipping, jumping and playing in the playground.
  • Children over five need to do at least 60 minutes a day of moderate to physical activity. This includes sports and games, but also walking, running, swimming or any physical activity your child enjoys.

Again, it will help to get the whole family involved – find ways to have fun being active with your kids. Remember, exercise can bring many health benefits to your child. Getting children active from an early age can start healthy habits that may last a lifetime.

Will my child be referred to a specialist?

Making changes to your child’s lifestyle is the most important way to combat obesity.

Your GP may suggest that you and your child join a local programme to help them reduce weight and increase their exercise. These weight management programmes are designed by a range of experts. These include dietitians, physical activity specialists and doctors and nurses who work with children. They can also help you to learn more about diet and nutrition, and to support and motivate your child.

The weight programme will come up with a tailored plan based on your child’s age and BMI. Losing weight isn’t always a good thing in children because they’re still growing. The best thing may be to aim to keep your child’s weight the same. As your child grows taller and their weight stays the same, their BMI will become lower.

In some circumstances, your GP may refer your child to see a paediatrician (a doctor who specialises in child health). This may be if there is a medical condition linked to your child’s weight problems.

Medicines for weight loss

Medicines for weight loss aren’t recommended for children under 12. There are medicines which can be used to help weight loss, but these are very rarely used in children. They can only be prescribed in a specialist clinic. Your doctor will only prescribe medicines if your child is very overweight and has other health problems caused by their weight.

Surgery for weight loss

Weight-loss surgery for children is very rarely done and never for younger children. Your child’s specialist doctor will only suggest it if you’ve tried everything else and nothing has worked. To be considered for surgery, your child will need to:

  • have been through puberty
  • be extremely overweight
  • have other health problems related to their excess weight

Your doctor will discuss your child’s treatment choices with you.

Why do children become overweight?

There are a number of different things that can work together to make children overweight.

The environment we live in can make it hard to keep to a healthy weight. High calorie foods are easily available, and often cheaper than healthy alternatives. Advances in technology mean we may need to be less physically active. And there are many ways to entertain ourselves with screens, which can lead to hours of sitting or lying still.

Children, like adults, will tend to put on weight if they take in more energy (calories) than they use up. If your child is overweight, they may be:

  • eating a diet with large amounts of carbohydrates and high-fat foods
  • drinking sugary drinks
  • having portion sizes that are larger than they need
  • not getting enough exercise
  • spending a lot of time watching television, playing video games or using a computer

Being overweight also runs in families. Overweight children tend to have overweight parents. This is partly genetic, but may also be due to sharing the same eating and activity patterns within the family.

There are other things that can affect whether a child becomes overweight. For instance, it may be linked to how much sleep they get. Children who have short sleep times may be more likely to become overweight.

Some medical conditions and some medicines will make a person put on weight. Your doctor will tell you more about these, if this affects your child.

What complications could my child get?

Being overweight can cause health problems for your child, both now and in the future.

  • Children who are overweight can get health conditions, such as asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
  • Overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. Carrying excess weight as an adult can lead to serious health problems. These include osteoarthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers.

Being overweight can also make your child feel unhappy and affect the way they feel about themselves.

Frequently asked questions about overweight in children

  • Like adults, children become overweight when they take in more energy (calories) than they use up. There are many reasons why this can happen. High energy foods are easily available, and often cheaper than healthy alternatives. Children may be eating too many of these, or may be having larger portions of food than they need. And if a child doesn’t get enough exercise, or spends too long looking at screens, they don’t use up this energy. For more information, see our section on ‘Why do children become overweight?’.
  • Overweight and obesity are measured using a calculation called the body mass index (BMI). This uses the height and weight of the child. In growing children, it’s important to compare their BMI with other children of the same age and sex. Special charts are used for this. Plotting your child’s BMI on these charts will help your GP or practice nurse see whether your child is overweight. BMI calculators can be found online, but these are not suitable for growing children.


Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

Tools and calculators

  • Discover other helpful health information websites.

    • Obesity in children. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed December 2021
    • Weight problems in children. Patient information from BMJ. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last published December 2021
    • Weight problems in children: increasing physical activity. Patient information from BMJ. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last published December 2021
    • Obesity in children. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, updated December 2020
    • Obesity: identification, assessment and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2014. www.nice.org.uk
    • Weight management: lifestyle services for overweight or obese children and young people. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), October 2013. www.nice.org.uk
    • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Maternal and child nutrition, November 2014. www.nice.org.uk
    • National Child Measurement Programme, England 2020/21 school year. digital.nhs.uk, last edited November 2021
    • UK Chief Medical Officers’ physical activity guidelines, 2019. Gov.uk.
    • Helping your child who is overweight. NIH. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. niddk.nih.gov, last reviewed September 2016
    • Personal communication, Dr Ade Adeniyi, Bupa Clinics GP, January 2022
  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, January 2022
    Expert reviewer, Dr Ade Adeniyi, Bupa Clinics GP
    Next review due January 2025

ajax-loader