Arizona doctors discuss new guidelines surrounding childhood obesity treatment

One Valley doctor agrees that sugery should be considered for some kids struggling with obesity, but another doctor is worried it will be overused.
Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 8:26 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Doctors are warning childhood obesity is becoming more of a problem nationwide and are coming out with new guidance for treating it. The American Academy of Pediatrics says parents should be aggressive and even consider surgery on children struggling with obesity as young as 13 years old and medication on children as young as 12.

“We have so many children that are obese,” said American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson and Valley pediatrician Dr. Gary Kirkilas. For as long as Kirkilas can remember, the solutions to childhood obesity were more exercise and a healthier diet. But now? “We can give medication, we’re talking about bariatric surgery for kids that are at a certain level with their body mass index (BMI),” he said. “It’s a right approach to a very serious problem.”

Kirkilas emphasizes that steps like medication or surgery are meant as complements to a healthier lifestyle, not alternatives. He says surgery and medicine are ways to hopefully avoid health issues later in life, such as increased risk of heart attack, joint pain, and any mental toll that being obese can have for kids and teenagers.

But University of Arizona doctor Shad Marvasti wonders if doctors will overuse these treatment options instead of focusing on why adolescents are obese. “We’ve let things go too far,” Marvasti said. “And we need to do what we can to stop it from happening in the first place.”

Marvasti suggests prioritizing a bigger push for healthier school lunches and keeping PE classes a requirement through high school over any medication or surgery. “This is like putting a band-aid over a gaping wound,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem. It’s just basically an extreme measure for an extreme situation.”

But with the CDC saying obesity affects nearly 20 percent of kids and teens, Kirkilas says there’s no harm in offering additional treatments for the illness. “For some children, not all, who have tried eating healthy, who have tried exercising, and are not achieving the results that their physician wants, there are other options that are encouraged,” he said.

If a child’s BMI meets or exceeds the 95th percentile of kids the same age and gender, that’s considered obese. Meeting or exceeding the 120th percentile is considered severely obese.