Pediatric obesity: An overview of etiology and treatment

N. Schonfeld-Warden, Craig H Warden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

141 Scopus citations


Pediatric obesity is a chronic and growing problem for which new ideas about the biologic basis of obesity offer hope for effective solutions. Prevalence of pediatric and adult obesity is increasing despite a bewildering array of treatment programs and severe psychosocial and economic costs. The definition of obesity as an increase in fat mass, not just an increase in body weight, has profound influence on the understanding and treatment of obesity. In principle, body weight is determined by a balance between energy expenditure and energy intake, but this observation does not by itself explain obesity. There is surprisingly little evidence that the obese overeat and only some evidence that the obese are more sedentary. Understanding of the biologic basis of obesity has grown rapidly in the last few years, especially with the identification of a novel endocrine pathway involving the adipose tissue secreted hormone leptin and the leptin receptor that is expressed in the hypothalamus. Plasma leptin levels are strongly correlated with body fat mass and are regulated by feeding and fasting, insulin, glucocorticoids, and other factors, consistent with the hypothesis that leptin is involved in body weight regulation and may even be a satiety factor (Fig. 2, Table 1). Leptin injections have been shown to reduce body weight of primates, although human clinical trials will not be reported until summer 1997. So many peptides influencing feeding have been described that one or more may have therapeutic potential (Fig. 2, Table 1). Although the complexity of pathways regulating body weight homeostasis slowed the pace of understanding underlying mechanisms, these complexities now offer many possibilities for novel therapeutic interventions (Fig. 2). Obesity is a major risk factor for insulin resistance and diabetes, hypertension, cancer, gallbladder disease, and atherosclerosis. In particular, adults who were obese as children have increased mortality independent of adult weight. Thus, prevention programs for children and adolescents will have long-term benefits. Treatment programs focus on modification of energy intake and expenditure through decreased calorie intake and exercise programs. Behavior-modification programs have been developed to increase effectiveness of these intake and exercise programs. These programs can produce short- term weight loss. Long-term losses are more modest but achieved more successfully in children than in adults. Several drug therapies for obesity treatment recently have been approved for adults that produce sustained 5% to 10% weight losses but experience with their use in children is limited. Identification of the biochemical pathways causing obesity by genetic approaches could provide the theoretic foundation for novel, safe, and effective obesity treatments. The cloning of leptin in 1994 has already led to testing the efficacy of leptin in clinical trials that are now underway. Although novel treatments of obesity are being developed as a result of the new biology of obesity, prevention of obesity remains an important goal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-361
Number of pages23
JournalPediatric Clinics of North America
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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