Childhood obesity continues to be a major problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity among preschool-aged children has declined but for children and adolescents aged 2-19 years, the obesity rate persists at about 17% or 12.7 million being affected.
Physicians are becoming more proactive in referring this clientele to registered dietitians, like myself, to combat this early in a child’s life when it needs to be addressed. Educating both the parents and child can make a tremendous difference in preventing the child growing into adulthood being overweight to obese. Doing so can significantly reduce the chances of them developing serious medical conditions like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
The more of the steps below you practice as a family, the greater the chance of helping your child achieve a healthy weight meant for them.
10 steps to take to reduce childhood obesity
- Parents – be a good role model setting a good example with your own eating habits.
Avoid the practice of “do as I say, not as I do.” Children observe you much more than you realize and when you set good examples of eating habits, they will tend to do the same.
- Always eat breakfast. Yes, breakfast is the most important meal of the day and children
should never skip it. Get them in the habit of eating breakfast as they will likely go on into adulthood continuing to do so. Numerous studies have shown people who eat breakfast tend to be slimmer than those who don’t. Up to 80% of overweight/obese individuals admit to not eating breakfast. Breakfast is particularly important for children – it boosts their attention span, concentration and memory, all skills they need to be successful in school. Choose breakfast foods high in protein, fiber, whole grains and low in sugar.
- Avoid liquid calories. Liquid calories are a major contributor to childhood obesity. Drinking calories from liquids is different than eating calories from food. It’s easy to overconsume ingesting a lot of calories quickly without filling you up fast. Liquid calories include soft drinks, juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened tea, lemonade, anything with sugar in it. Offer water when thirsty and at mealtimes.
- Promote physical activity. Children need to be active at least 60 minutes each day. If your child is in school, know how many recesses they have and what they do during that time. Encourage your child to be on a sports team or take dance or gymnastic lessons. When at home, go outside and play with your child – play tag, soccer, ride bikes or go on a walk. Ideas for indoor activity can include turning on music to dance to or playing silly games getting everyone moving and having fun.
- Eat together as a family and keeping mealtimes pleasant. Studies have shown families who eat frequent meals together have children with better body mass indexes. Keep mealtimes pleasant and stress free so your child looks forward to each meal. This is not the time to discuss bad behavior or bad grades. Involve your kids in helping prepare meals – they’re more likely to eat what they make and they learn how to cook.
- Have structured meals and snacks. Eating chaotically or on no set time schedule is good for no one, especially children. When kids learn and can be assured they will be fed three meals a day along with snacks at routine times, they can relax and be confident in knowing they will not go hungry. This reduces them constantly thinking of food and making poor food choices.
- Reduce eating out at fast food restaurants. Too many kids are eating out at fast foods joints – kids between 6 and 14 eat fast food 157,000,000 times each month – that’s a whole lotta hamburgers! That’s also too much fat, sodium, sugar and calories which only contributes to the childhood obesity problem. Visit fast food restaurants infrequently and when you do, make healthier food choices.
- Make healthy meals and snacks at least 80-90% of the time. It’s unrealistic to eat healthy 100% of the time but aiming for 80-90% can be achieved. An occasional treat every now and then is alright but keep the focus on offering healthy food the majority of the time.
- Promote a healthy body image. If you take good care of yourself by eating healthy and exercising on a regular basis, your child will take notice and usually do the same. Keep the focus on healthy eating and keep any negative thoughts you may have about your own body to yourself. If your child sees you stressing about your own body image, they will more likely be obsessed with their body image for years to come.
- Reduce screen time. Computers, the TV, iPads, tablets, video games, cell phones, they all count as screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 2 and no more than one or two hours per day for older children. Keep electronic devices out of children’s bedrooms and turn the TV off during mealtimes.
Putting it all together
Notice in the steps above I did not mention putting a child on a calorie controlled/calorie restricted diet. Dieting is not recommended for kids. If it’s too restrictive it can affect their growth and lead to possible nutrient deficiencies. It can also lead to feelings of stress and anxiety having to meet a certain calorie level each day and can make them feel like an outcast compared to the rest of the family. If the calorie level is set too low it can slow their metabolism setting up a lifetime of struggling with their weight.
Instead, teach them to listen to their body’s hunger cues – when you’re hungry you eat and when you’re full, you stop. Offer children a variety of foods to eat without forcing or denying foods. Coach them on having a good attitude about their body and that food is not the enemy.
Putting the above steps into practice will increase the likelihood of a child who grows into their weight as they become taller without ever having had a restricted diet to follow. Remember, we all come in different sizes and shapes and the important thing is we are daily taking as good of care of ourselves as possible.