Preventing Childhood Obesity
A Lethal Epidemic
September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. However, we should really be focusing on prevention year-round as U.S. childhood obesity rates have doubled, and teen obesity rates have tripled, since 1980. Obesity heavily contributes to several serious physical and mental health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, and social isolation. Childhood obesity is a serious issue not only because of the immediate health threats it poses but also because obese children are likely to remain obese in adulthood. The longer a person is obese, the more life-threatening their health issues become. Obesity has become a full-fledged epidemic and the idea of reversing the growing numbers can be overwhelming. The key is to start small—small steps to improve your child’s health can lead to big results.
While genetic factors play a role in a child’s propensity for obesity, it is also true that children replicate the dietary and exercise habits of their parents. While many are quick to point their fingers at the parents of obese children, it is almost never a parent’s conscious decision to cause obesity. Obesity is largely a result of industrialization and socioeconomics.
Food production methods in the U.S. have changed significantly over the past few decades. Livestock is treated with chemicals and pharmaceuticals that would have been foreign to our ancestors. Food is preserved with exorbitant quantities of sodium. Fruits and vegetables sit in grocery stores for extended periods of time, losing nutrients as each day goes by. And sugar is hiding in foods we never think to look in. Not only has the way food is produced changed but so has its availability. In most cases, food in the U.S. is more accessible in this decade than ever before, making it far easier to binge. Lifestyles are also more sedentary than ever, with many adults sitting at desks all day, and countless children and teens spending the better part of their day on electronics—watching TV, playing video games, and scrolling through social media.
Generally, healthy foods are more expensive than unhealthy foods. This creates a dilemma for low-income families who simply try to feed their children satiating foods they can afford. While inexpensive healthy food does exist, it does not usually provide as much variety as junk food, and many low-income families do not have the same access to nutrition education as higher-income families. Additionally, children from low-income families may have limited access to safe recreational spaces, such as parks and playgrounds.
Prevention and Cure
The University of Rochester Medical Center provides the following childhood obesity prevention guidelines:
- Don’t just focus on a child’s weight. Work to change family eating habits and activity levels over time.
- Be a role model. Parents who eat healthy foods and do physical activity set an example. A child is more likely to do the same.
- Encourage physical activity. A child should have 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. More than 60 minutes of activity may help with weight loss and keeping a healthy weight.
- Reduce screen time. Limit time in front of the TV and computer to less than 1 to 2 hours a day.
- Encourage children to eat only when hungry. Tell them to eat slowly.
- Don’t use food as a reward. Don’t withhold food as a punishment.
- Keep the fridge and pantry stocked with healthy foods and drinks. These include fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruit, and vegetables. Don’t buy soft drinks or snacks that are high in sugar and fat.
- Serve at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Encourage your child to drink water instead of drinks with added sugar. These include soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit juice drinks.
- Offer a mix of different colored vegetables each day, especially dark green, red, and orange vegetables.
- Serve a variety of whole fruits, rather than juice.
- Ensure all breads, cereals, and pastas served are whole grain.
- Choose heart-healthy lean protein such as beans, chicken, legumes, and low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese.
- Opt for foods that contain healthy monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats like olive or safflower oil instead of foods high in trans or saturated fats, such as packaged snack foods, foods fried or prepared with partially hydrogenated oil, butter, and red meat.
As mentioned previously, education plays a huge role in the prevention of child obesity. Though the U.S. has taken extra measures in recent years to educate students in public schools about nutrition, the CDC states, “U.S. students receive less than 8 hours of required nutrition education each school year, far below the 40 to 50 hours that are needed to affect behavior change. Additionally, the percentage of schools providing required instruction on nutrition and dietary behaviors decreased from 84.6% to 74.1% between 2000 and 2014.” This is why at-home nutrition education is crucial. It is important that parents discuss healthy eating and exercise habits with their children on a regular basis. Of course, this is a difficult ask for parents who may not fully understand nutrition themselves. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so we’ve created a list of reliable resources about healthy eating and exercise:
- “Family Health and Fitness Day”
- “Lowering Your Blood Pressure”
- “The Definitive Guide to Healthy Eating in Real Life”
- “Healthy Eating Plate”
- (“10 Easy Exercises for Kids”
Also, since children spend so much time on the computer anyway, check out these educational nutrition games for kids:
What are some of your favorite healthy meals to prepare for your kids? Comment below.