Preventing Obesity/Overweight in Children
Preventing childhood obesity is an important concern - for moms and dads, guardians and caregivers, family members, teachers, health care providers, other members of the community - and society in general. As most of us know, obesity contributes to a number of serious health problems in adults and in children and can lead to emotional, psychological, and social issues as well. Children and teens who are overweight or obese often are teased by their peers and frequently experience low levels of self-esteem, high levels of stress, and problems at school.
Healthy eating habits and regular physical activity can help prevent obesity in children and can help kids lead healthier, happier lives overall - in the present and in the future. In most cases, maintaining a healthy weight involves balancing the energy (calories) your child takes in from food and beverages with the energy he or she uses through growth and activity. Weight gain usually results from an increased intake of calories, a decrease in energy expenditure, or a combination of both.
Several factors can contribute to overweight and obesity in children - including genetic, environmental, cultural, and psychological factors. Genetics (heredity) may play an important role - in fact, studies have shown that:
- Children who are adopted usually resemble their biological parents with regards to weight, rather than their adoptive parents who share their environment.
- Twins - even those who are raised separately - often have a similar body mass index (BMI).
However, most researchers agree that the increase in childhood obesity in recent years occurred too quickly to have resulted from genetic variations. It's more likely that environmental and cultural factors, such as changes in lifestyle and diet, are to blame for the alarming rise in childhood obesity.
Today's families are often "on the go" and our busy lifestyles can leave less time for preparing healthy, well-balanced meals. The widespread availability and convenience of "fast foods" also contribute to unhealthy eating habits. In addition, children and teens are living more sedentary lifestyles than ever before - spending more time in front of the television, computer, or video game system, and less time being physically active.
According to our sister publication Remedy's Healthy Living Spring 2013, if you can't get your kids away from video games, that may not be a bad thing - if the games involve physical activity. Motion-based video games such as boxing or dancing use up nearly twice as much energy as traditional games, says a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, and may help keep children from becoming overweight. (Helpful tip: Join junior when he plays active video games to burn extra calories yourself!)
Hunger and appetite are controlled primarily by an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. Some people - children, adolescents, and adults - experience a stronger-than-normal connection between appetite and emotions and feelings. It's relatively common to associate certain foods with positive feelings, such as happiness, comfort, and security, but overeating can become a significant problem when food is used to fill emotional needs or to cope with daily challenges.
Tips for Preventing Obesity in Children & Adolescents
Parents can help prevent overweight/obesity in their children by setting a good example and making healthy choices for themselves. Here are some helpful tips for parents, guardians, and caregivers about preventing obesity in children and adolescents.
- Schedule regular wellness exams, also called checkups or physicals, for your child, as recommended by his or her doctor. At these doctor visits, your pediatrician will perform a complete physical examination, answer questions and address concerns about your child’s health and development, administer immunizations, and monitor your child’s growth—height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) - to make sure it is within a healthy range.
- Make sure your child gets enough rest. Studies show that children who regularly get fewer than the recommended number of hours of sleep are at higher risk for being overweight or obese, as well as for other medical conditions. School-aged children usually need about 10 hours of sleep each night - younger children need about 12 hours and adolescents need about 9 hours.
- Help your child develop healthy eating habits. Adequate nutrition provided by a balanced diet is essential to help children grow and develop properly. Encourage your child to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, lean sources of protein, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Limit foods that are high in fat, calories, and sugar. Portion control also is important to help prevent obesity/overweight.
- Encourage your child to be physically active for at least an hour every day. Choose activities that the whole family can participate in together - such as bicycling, hiking, and gardening - or simply play outside. Enlist your child's help in age-appropriate chores like washing the car, vacuuming, sweeping, or raking the lawn. Once he or she is old enough, enroll your child in an activity - like dance class, martial arts, or tumbling class - or encourage your child to join a youth or school team (e.g., soccer, baseball, basketball, tennis) in your community.
- Limit your child's "screen" time - time spent in front of the television, computer, or video game system - to fewer than 2 hours per day. Most experts agree that children under two years of age should not watch television.
- Grocery shop together and teach your child about making healthy decisions and food choices. Involve your child in planning and preparing your family's meals - even very young children can help wash fruits and vegetables, stir ingredients, or set the table. Look together for ways to help make your child's favorite meals healthier. Eat meals together at the table as often as possible and avoid eating in front of the television.
- Don't use food to motivate your child or as a reward, and avoid withholding food as punishment. Teach your child that most foods can have a place in a healthy diet, but processed foods that are high in fat and/or sugar and low in nutritional value should be eaten sparingly or as an occasional treat.
- Ask your pediatrician or a licensed dietician or nutritionist if your child should take a dietary supplement, such as an over-the-counter multivitamin. Make sure that older children and teens know the dangers of fasting, using laxatives, and purging to lose weight. Teach pre-teens and adolescents that diet pills and other substances that claim to aid in weight loss - even those labeled "natural" - may be dangerous and should never be used without the recommendation and supervision of a qualified health care provider.
- Avoid teasing, ridiculing, or belittling your child about his or her weight. Focus on healthy, positive lifestyle changes and make sure your child does not relate his or her self-worth, or the value of other people, to body size.
According to our sister publication Diabetes Focus (Winter 2013), parents who are concerned about their teen's weight should skip the negative comments and teach the child about healthy eating instead. A study of more than 6,000 Minnesota adolescents and families found that overweight or obese teens whose mothers nagged them about their weight were about 13 percent more likely to use unhealthy weight-control measures than kids whose mothers made an effort to instill healthy eating habits in them.