Body Fat Percentage for Children

Children's football team running drills
Encourage fun activities to help your child reduce body fat. (Image: Jamie Garbutt/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

Like adults, more and more children are having a hard time managing their weight. And an overweight child is more likely to become an overweight adult, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Figuring out your child's body fat is one way to assess your child's health risk. Your doctor can help you determine where your child stands in terms of body fat and offer personalized advice for weight control, if needed.

Body Fat Percentage for Children

While the focus is usually on too much fat, children need a certain percentage of body fat to promote growth. Not having enough fat can be as detrimental to health as having too much. Additionally, boys and girls have different fat percentage requirements.

A girl between the ages of 5 and 12 with a body fat percentage of 15 or less is considered underweight. A normal body fat percentage for a girl is 15 to 29 percent; overweight, 21 to 33 percent; and obese, over 33 percent. For boys, underweight is 12 percent body fat or less; normal weight, 14 to 22 percent; overweight, 18 to 32 percent; and obese, over 32 percent.

How Body Fat Is Measured

Body fat in children can be tested in a number of different ways. They all require special equipment and a trained professional, however. Bioelectric impedance, or BIA, which is a tool that estimates body fat using a low-level current that distinguishes water weight from fat weight to estimate body fat percentage, has been shown to be good at estimating body fat in children. While noninvasive, in order to get an accurate estimate, children cannot eat within four hours of the test and must urinate 30 minutes before.

Skinfold testing also accurately measures body fat in children. But you need a well-trained technician to get the right number, and children may not like the pinching tool. Dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, scans -- which measure bone and fat-free mass to give you body fat percentage -- and underwater weighing are also used to estimate body fat.

Health Effects of Excess Body Fat for Children

Too much fat on a child has both short- and long-term effects. In the short-term, high body fat in children may increase both cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which is a precursor to heart disease. Excess body fat may also lead to joint and bone problems, sleep apnea and elevated blood sugar. And that's not including the effects carrying too much weight has on a child's self-esteem.

Over the long term, these health issues take their toll and may lead to chronic illnesses as an adult, including not only heart disease but also type-2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and osteoarthritis.

How to Help Your Child

You might be concerned about your child if he has a high body fat percentage. But your goal shouldn't be weight loss at this age but to slow or stabilize the rate of weight gain to allow your child to grow into his weight. To help your approach, consult with your child's pediatrician to develop a strategy that promotes wellness and protects self-esteem. Weight is a sensitive issue and needs to be approached in the right manner.

Instead of singling out a weight issue, find ways to make getting healthy fun. Have your child pick out new fruits and vegetables to try while shopping at the grocery store, or look for recipes that you can cook together. Help your child get exercise with fun activities that she enjoys. Sign her up for soccer or karate, go for walks as a family, play a game of Frisbee or have a dance party.

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