Childhood Obesity Prevention Facts (A Parent’s Guide)

Why Is Obesity In Children on the Rise?

The numbers are shocking. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Today, more than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.

Why do we need to worry childhood obesity prevention?

What’s going on in the lives of children that is causing such a tremendous increase in obesity, and what can we do about it?

The truth is that there are likely many reasons why obesity is on the rise.

Childhood Obesity Statistics and Facts

More people are eating processed food. We’re talking about fast and easy meals like take-out meals, frozen meals, and meals that largely come from bags and boxes. They’re packed with sugar, saturated and trans-fats, and more calories than a growing child needs.

We Live Sedentary Lifestyles

The American public spends an average of 34 hours a week in front of the television, according to Nielsen. That time doesn’t include recorded programs, nor does it include computer and gaming screen time.

If a child isn’t sitting at school, they’re sitting in the car or sitting at home. A sedentary lifestyle slows your metabolism down. Children burn fewer calories.

We’re Eating More Sugar

The average teenager consumes 34 teaspoons of sugar each day. That’s 544 calories from sugar in a single day.

Multiply that times 7 days in a week and that’s an entire pound of body weight – just from sugar.

If your child gains a pound a week, that’s 52 pounds a year. Sugary sodas and coffee drinks are part of the problem. Even sports drinks are packed with sugar.

The FDA recommends consuming no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar a day. There’s almost 8 teaspoons in a 12 ounce can of cola.

It’s Easy for a Child to Quickly Put on Weight

Between eating the wrong foods and not moving their young bodies, they’re consuming more than they’re burning on a daily basis. It’s leading to tremendous physical, emotional, and mental challenges – challenges no child should really have to face.

The Effects of Childhood Obesity

• Obese children more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
• Obese children and teenagers are more likely to have pre-diabetes.
• They’re at a greater risk for bone and joint pain and sleep problems.
• It’s difficult to be overweight in a culture that idealizes often unrealistic body shapes. Children who are obese often teased and struggle with poor self-esteem and behavioral issues.
• Overweight children are at risk for many types of cancer, including breast cancer, colon cancer, cancer of the kidney, pancreas, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate, as well as other cancers like Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
• Obese children rate their quality of life as quite low. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003, researchers asked 106 children between ages 5 to 18 to rate their quality of life. They were to base their answer on things like their ability to get along with others, play sports, and keep up in school. Obese children rated their quality of life as low – as low as the scores of cancer patients on chemotherapy.

We understand the risks of childhood obesity and the causes are fairly clear. However, preventing childhood obesity can be challenging.

There are essentially two major components of preventing, and reversing, childhood obesity. They are:

1. Improving eating habits
2. Becoming more active

We’ll take a look at several steps, tips, and ideas within each of these two categories, and then we’ll talk in depth about the role of parents in this challenge. The parents make all the difference.

How to Motivate Children to Make Healthy Eating Choices & Habits

The first component to preventing obesity or turning it around is to pay attention to intake. What a child eats can’t always be monitored.

However, you can teach your children to make healthy eating choices. You can help them create good habits. Let’s take a look at 10 tips, strategies, and ideas to help you motivate your children to make good choices.

1. Be a Consistent Role Model

Children are inundated with messages about food. They see commercials on television. Those commercials make McDonald’s seem like the happiest place on earth, second only to a Disney theme park. They make Coca-Cola look like the key to joy, and Skittles make rainbows appear in the coolest places.

Children also receive messages about food from their peers. They trade at lunch, and the kid with the coolest lunch is the coolest kid. Kids used to beg for Lunchables because they were “cool” to eat.

Most importantly, however, children get messages from their parents. You have the most influence on your child’s beliefs, thoughts, and ideas about food. When you make healthy choices and talk about healthy choices with your child, they hear you.

However, you can’t just talk big, you have to follow through. If you tell your child that they can’t have a soda because it’s too sugary and then you grab a soda for yourself the next day, your child will notice. To help you kids develop good habits and to prevent obesity, it’s your responsibility to be a good role model.

2. Have a Positive Attitude

It’s important to have a good attitude about healthy food. Many children seem to have a natural dislike for vegetables. Try to support your child’s food preferences while also encouraging them to make good food choices.

For example, instead of asking them to eat their broccoli, if they’re old enough you can get them involved in some decision making. You might ask them if they want broccoli, green beans, or carrots for dinner. Often, when a child has some control over what they eat, they’ll make better choices.

Of course, it’s also important that you eat your veggies too, without complaining. Here’s the other component to having a positive attitude, don’t shame yourself or your child for unhealthy food choices. Shaming can turn into food hiding and low self-esteem.

3. Have Healthy Options In The Home

One of the surest ways to support your child to develop healthy eating habits is to eliminate the unhealthy ones. Sure, when they’re away from home they can make different choices. However, the foundation you set at home is an important one.

So instead of buying cookies, chips, and soda, fill your cupboards with other snacking options. Stock your pantry with nuts, whole grain crackers, and fruit. If your children are hungry, they will eat an apple – especially if it’s the only choice.

4. Make Meals

Studies have shown that when families sit down to eat dinner together, the children grow up to be more self-assured and connected. That’s half the battle; the other half is to make mealtime something that’s healthy. That means eating whole foods, not processed ones.

And while there’s a general believe that quick and easy meals must be take-out or come in a box, making your food from scratch is actually pretty darn quick and easy too. For example, steaks take about 10 minutes to cook, and broccoli can be steamed while they’re cooking. And there is a ton that you can do in a Crock-Pot.

Making meals at home isn’t complicated. You just have to get a little organized and create a plan. You might even make your meals ahead of time, on the weekends, and freeze them. Then making dinner is as easy as reheating. Homemade meals with whole foods are much healthier options. They also show your children that it’s important to care about mealtime and to pay attention to what you put into your body.

5. Teach Children To Cook

Speaking of making meals yourself, instead of buying them from restaurants or in boxes, get your children involved in mealtime. Teach them to cook. When you get your children involved in the meal planning and preparation, they’ll be invested in the food.

There’s an involvement level for any age. For example, preschoolers can help decide the vegetable or side when given a few options. They can wash, stir, and dump ingredients into bowls or pans. Older children can follow simple recipes and help with meal planning. Teenage children can take responsibility for making one meal each week.

6. Snack Time

Snack time is often the most difficult time for both children and adults. We want something that feeds cravings, and is also quick and easy. There is a two-pronged approach to snack time.

The first is to make sure that meals are balanced enough that your child isn’t hungry two hours later. This means making sure there are enough complex carbohydrates and protein to keep blood sugar levels balanced.

The second component of a healthy snack time approach is to provide healthy and tasty snacks. Nut butters and fruit or whole grain crackers are an option. Smoothies, snack mixes and bars are also healthy options. There are snack bars that you can make at home which are super healthy and delicious. For example:

• 12 Medjool dates pitted
• 2 cups cashews
• 1/4 cup chocolate chips
• 1/2 tsp sea salt
• 2 Tbsp. water

Instructions

• Blend the cashews to a fine powder in your food processor.
• Add the remaining ingredients, except the chocolate chips, and pulse until a soft dough forms.
• Evenly spread the mixture into an 8X8 pan lined with parchment paper.
• With another sheet of parchment, press the dough down tight and sprinkle the top with chocolate chips. Press them lightly into the bars.
• Set in the fridge for a few hours, then remove and cut into bars with a pizza cutter. Wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap.

These bars taste a bit like chocolate chip cookie dough and your kids will love them. They’re healthy too.

7. Teach Them About The Role Of Food In Health

Children will only take your word for it for a while, until they start wondering why they can’t have cookies and ice cream for dinner. Explain how nutrients help give them energy and provide their body with specific benefits.

For example, calcium in milk and dark leafy greens make their bones strong. Protein makes their muscles strong and good fats help their brain. While it’s okay to have a treat occasionally, too many treats can harm their health. Teach moderation.

8. Serve Reasonable Portions

Portion sizes have grown and become distorted. Adults have a difficult time eating smaller, and more appropriate, portions. Children have different portion requirements, which makes it even more challenging for adults to give them appropriate portions.

For example, a serving size of meat for a 6 year old is 1 ounce. For an adult it’s 4 ounces. A serving of fruit is half of a small apple. Pasta or cereal is limited to half a cup.

9. Dessert Is Not Mandatory

Don’t make dessert part of every meal. Dessert, like any sweet, should be something that happens occasionally. It’s important to teach children about moderation. They’ll develop a healthy attitude about foods and their choices.

10. Don’t Reward With Sweets

Because children love sweets and because they often misbehave, it’s tempting to bribe them with treats. For example, “if you’re well behaved at the grocery store, you can choose a candy item in the checkout.”

This teaches children that food is a reward and that’s a habit they’ll take with them into adulthood. Food is fuel and it’s a lovely part of life. It’s part of our culture and it should be enjoyable. It shouldn’t be a reward.

Eating healthy and moving your body are the two components of maintaining a healthy weight both as a child and as an adult.

5 Tips to Get Children to Be Active

Children are born to move. We’re all born to move, actually. When your body is active and moving, it releases hormones that keep your systems regulated.

When you’re sedentary, these systems slow down. Metabolism slows down and instead of burning fat, you’re storing it.

Sedentary lifestyles have become so common and so deadly that there’s now a name for it. It’s called “Sitting Disease” and it leads to cardiovascular problems, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, cancer and death.

It’s a big problem and it’s avoidable. The following six tips will help you get your children off the couch and active – moving their bodies like they were born to do.

1. Limit Screen Time

Between television, computers, smartphones, and gaming systems, children have ample opportunity to stay in front of a screen almost all day long.

And many do. If they’re not in school, they’re looking at a screen. This means, in most cases, that they’re sedentary.

Limit screen time. Get your child off of the couch, out of their chairs and moving. Yes, it’s no fun to confiscate devices. However, your child will thank you for it in the long run.

You can implement parental controls on televisions, put computers in the family area, and confiscate your child’s smartphone and other devices. There are monitoring tools you can use, and rules you can easily enforce.

So what’s a good rule of thumb? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, total screen time should be limited to two hours a day for children ages 3-18. And, for 2-year-olds and younger, there should be none at all.

2. Get Active Together

One excellent way to motivate children to move more is to move with them. Create family activities that get you moving.
Go on a bike ride together. Go roller skating, swimming at the rec center, or walk to the park.

There are dozens of activities that you can do together right now. Make being active part of your family routine.

3. Help Them Find Activities They Love

Sometimes children just need a little nudge. They need to be encouraged to try things.

Yoga, dance, karate, soccer, and fencing are just a few opportunities for children to move their body and get active.

Little ones can take tumbling classes and ride a bike. Older children can take gymnastics, softball or baseball or even start running. Once they’re in school, encourage them to join groups, teams, and clubs.

4. Be Positive and Supportive

Children need structure and guidance. They also need parents to be their support system.

It’s important that you’re positive about these lifestyle changes and new habits. If you’re enthusiastic and optimistic, then they’re more likely to be as well.

It can be a difficult line to walk. The difference between nagging and encouraging is sometimes blurry.

And you may not be around all the time to make sure they’re not sitting on the couch.

Remember, children should only have two hours of screen time each day. Work with them to support a more active lifestyle.

5. Be A Good Role Model

In addition to motivating your child to be active and to get off the couch, you have to also model the behavior.
You have to live the lifestyle that you want your children to live.

Get active. Limit your own screen time to two hours a day and add active hobbies to your life.

Watch your children when they’re moving their bodies and when they’re sitting. You’ll see their faces light up when they’re active.
They smile more. They are happier and their eyes are brighter.

Even when they complain about “another hike” or tell you that they don’t want to ride their bike anymore, you know that the movement and exercise is good for them.

You’re helping them create a foundation for an active and healthy future. You’re preventing obesity and instilling good habits.

The bottom line is that you are the key to helping your child prevent obesity.

Educate and Empower Yourself About Childhood Nutrition

We’ve already talked about how important it is for you to be a good role model. Put yourself in your child’s shoes for a minute. If you’re sitting on the couch munching on chips and watching your favorite reality show, you can’t expect your child to grab an apple and go play outside.

Children pay very close attention to their parent’s actions. If you want your child to adopt healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle, you’re going to have to walk the talk.

The truth is that parents often don’t know what a child’s nutrition and exercise requirements actually are. They don’t know how to walk the talk, and it’s pretty difficult to teach your child about health and fitness when you may not know what the experts know.

So let’s take a look at the fundamental questions that parents have about how to teach their child good habits, starting with normal weight ranges for children and where their calories should come from.

Question #1 How Many Calories Should My Child Consume?

Normal weight for a child varies depending on body composition, age, bone mass, height and many other factors. Generally speaking, your pediatrician will give you a percent based on charts that compare your child’s height and weight to others.

You can access these same charts at the Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/growthcharts/clinical_charts.htm).

It’s important to remember that most children will get the calories they need, so it’s more important to pay attention to what they eat. The calories from a cookie are different than the calories from an apple.

And the truth is that children burn calories at different rates. A teenage boy, for example, may need 1,000 more calories every day than a teenage girl.

The general recommended range for most school-age kids: 1,600 to 2,200 calories a day. It’s important to keep in mind that active children need more calories than non-active ones, and the more muscle a child has, the more calories they’ll need.

But back to where those calories should come from…

There is a recommended daily allowance for protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fats. The RDA depends on the child’s age.
For example, The RDA of protein, measured in grams, is:

• Children ages 1 – 3: 13 grams
• Children ages 4 – 8: 19 grams
• Children ages 9 – 13: 34 grams
• Girls ages 14 – 18: 46 grams
• Boys ages 14 – 18: 52 grams

Children should consume 14 grams of dietary fiber per 1,000 calories they consume. Fiber comes from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Each child should have at least one serving of fruits or vegetables at every snack or meal.

Every day a young child should consume about 2 cups of vegetables and 1.5 cups of fruit a day. As the child grows older, the amount of fruits and vegetables should increase.

Question #2 How Do I Teach Moderation When I Can’t Achieve It Myself?

If you’re struggling with moderation in your own life there are a few different ways you can approach it. First, when you make a mistake or mess up, forgive yourself.

For example, if you sit down to have a piece of cake and end up eating half the cake, that’s not moderation.

Forgive yourself and learn from the mistake. As you learn about moderation for yourself, you can also teach your child what you’ve learned.

Consider creating “rules” for treats.

For example, you might make Friday the night you have dessert after dinner. You might buy one bag of chips for the house each week and when the chips are gone, they’re gone until you buy another bag next week.

Another example of a self-imposed guideline or rule is to eat healthy six days a week and allow yourself to eat anything one day a week. Moderation is going to be a bit different for everyone.

Find what works for you and help your child understand that food is fuel. It can be fun and delicious, however, most of the time it should also provide nutrition.

Question #3 How Can I Teach My Child to Love and Care for Their Body When I Don’t Love and Care for My Own?

Your child undoubtedly picks up your beliefs about your own body and appearance. When you don’t care for yourself, it sends them mixed signals.

You may have issues with your own body and your weight. However, it’s critically important that you send a positive message to your child.
And as you’re sending this message, you may learn to love your own body more.

So how do you demonstrate to your child that you do care for and appreciate your body?

• Go to the doctor. When you go to the doctor for checkups and for any concerns or illnesses that you have, it shows your children that your health and wellbeing are a priority.
• Don’t criticize your body, or anyone else’s, in front of your children. Even if you don’t feel great about your body, criticizing it teaches your child to be critical of themselves. If you want them to love themselves, imperfections and all, then you have to show them what that looks like.
• Take care of your body. Exercise, eat well, and practice good hygiene. Show your child what it looks like to love yourself and your body.
• Don’t “diet.” Dieting sends the wrong message. It’s much different than the concept of adopting a healthier lifestyle. Making healthy food choices is different than calorie restriction or deprivation. And children with parents that diet end up becoming dieters themselves. The Boston Medical Center reports that approximately 45 million Americans diet each year and spend $33 billion on weight-loss products in their pursuit of a trimmer, fitter body. And most 10-year-olds have been on a diet.

According to studies, more than half of 13-year-old girls have issues with how their bodies look.

Dieting and the dieting culture teach children poor body image and bad nutrition and self-care habits. Dieting at an early age also leads to eating disorders in both girls and boys.

It’s much more productive and healthier in the long run to teach your child to develop healthy eating habits and to avoid dieting.

Question #4 What Other Habits Support Healthy Weight in Children and Prevent Obesity?

There are actually a number of habits for both children and adults that can help maintain a healthy weight. The first is probably the most important for any child and that is sleep.

Sleep is the time when the body’s tissues are restored, hormone levels are balanced and systems get a chance to regulate and rest.
Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep tend to be overweight, more so than those who do get enough sleep.

Children are still growing and they have special sleep needs.

• 1-3 Years Old: 14 hours of sleep per day
• 3-6 Years Old: 10-12 hours per day
• 7-12 Years Old: 10-11 hours per day
• 12-18 Years Old: 8-9 hours per day

In small children the sleep can be divided between nighttime and naps. Older children need to get consecutive hours of sleep because they rarely have time for a nap.

Another component that contributes to weight gain is stress. When a person is under stress their body releases cortisol, which is a hormone.

If this hormone is constantly in the system it impacts blood sugar levels and causes the body to store fat. Some stress is a part of life.
However, if your child appears to be chronically stressed, you may want to get outside help to teach them coping mechanisms.

A consistent schedule is also a good way to help manage a healthy body weight.

Meals, snacks, sleep and even physical activity can become part of your child’s routine. It helps them, and their body, know what to expect.

Question #5 How Do I Get My Child Involved In Meal Planning And Preparation?

The answer to this question depends on the age of your child. If you have older children, you can simply make them responsible for a meal each week.

They choose a recipe, with your approval of course, and make the meal. Younger children can take different active roles. They can choose from a list of possible meals to make with you.

They can also help you with the shopping. When children are actively engaged in mealtime preparation and planning, they begin to think differently about the food they eat.

Small Changes Lead To Big Results

It’s tempting to overhaul the way your family lives – to eradicate all of the bad habits at once and to replace them with healthier habits.

However, this type of extreme approach can cause a backlash. Children may be completely uncooperative.

If you instead make small changes to your family’s lifestyle, your child may not even notice. Make a list of the habits you want to embrace and one by one, begin integrating them into your life.

Not only will your child grow up to be a healthy weight, they’ll have a solid foundation to make good decisions as adults.

Illustration: DocChewbacca/Flickr

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