by Dr. Brent Jensen, Sacred Heart Pediatrics
All children gain weight as they grow and develop. However, putting on more weight than is needed to support growth and development can lead to childhood obesity. Over the past 30 years, the number of children with weight problems in the United States has risen at an alarming rate. Today, 1 in 3 children and teens is overweight or obese — putting them at risk for developing health problems such as early onset puberty, as well as conditions that were once only seen in adults, including: type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or bone and joint problems.
The good news is that early intervention can protect the health of your child now and in the future.
Understanding how children become overweight is an important step toward breaking the cycle. Although there can be some genetic or hormonal causes of childhood obesity, most weight gain is caused by children eating too much and exercising too little.
It’s easy for children to eat too much when they:
- Are exposed to large portion sizes in restaurants or at home
- Eat meals in front of the TV
- Snack frequently
- Eat foods that are calorie dense and have no nutritional value, such as: chips, crackers, fast food, and processed foods
- Consume beverages with added sugar
- It’s hard for children to be physically active when they:
- Spend up to 4 to 5 hours with media, including watching TV and DVDs or playing videos — which is the average for children today
- Go to a school where physical education class has been cut back or eliminated
What Parents Can Do
The number one risk factor for childhood obesity is having a parent who is obese. Children who have one obese parent are 50 percent more likely to become obese themselves. Those with two overweight parents are 75 percent more likely to become obese. The key to keeping children of all ages at a healthy weight is to lead by example and get the whole family involved.
You play a huge role in helping your child live a healthy life and at all ages, even as early as birth. Some tips include:
- Breastfeed if possible. In addition to its many health benefits, breastfeeding may help prevent excessive weight gain. Breastfed babies may be more able to control their own intake and follow their own internal hunger cues.
- At 4 to 6 months, introduce rice cereal and then vegetables. By introducing vegetables before fruit you help your child develop a taste for vegetables as opposed to the sweetness of fruits.
- Establish a family centered mealtime where everyone comes to the table to eat.
- Get children involved preparing meals. When they are young let them measure and mix and get their hands dirty. As they get older, give them more responsibilities.
- Don’t allow children to graze all day. Keep their food intake to three good meals that include a protein, vegetable, and complex carbohydrate, plus one snack each day.
- Keep portions in control. If the meal is balanced there should be no need to go back for seconds or thirds.
- Teach children about healthy and unhealthy foods. Allow them to have unhealthy foods on special occasions and encourage them to enjoy the treat without feeling guilty.
- Allow your children to have 2 hours of unstructured play every day.
- Plan 15 minutes of structured exercise 2 to 3 times a day for your children, such as bike riding, walking the dog, practicing soccer, etc. And get out there with them.
- If you are worried that your child or adolescent may be overweight, make an appointment with your doctor who can assess eating and activity habits and make suggestions about how to make positive changes.
Unraveling the Childhood Obesity Problem
In order to solve the problem of childhood obesity, we must treat it on many levels. The child must be educated and helped to make healthy choices. Parents must become involved by setting a good example and creating a family atmosphere that fosters good eating habits and physical activity. The community must be encouraged to create environments that increase physical activity and healthy eating among its citizens. For example promoting the availability of fresh produce through neighborhood markets or the creation of safe playgrounds, parks, and walking trails. Finally, the federal government must become involved with programs like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
It will take us all working together to help our next generation become and remain healthy.
Dr. Brent Jensen is a board certified pediatrician with Sacred Heart Pediatrics. His goal is to help children grow strong and healthy.