The percentage of overweight children in the United States is growing at an alarming rate, with 33% of kids now considered overweight or obese. In Estonia it is fortunately less (10%), but still an alarming number of children. In UK 25% of boys and 33% of girls are overweight or obese. And in Spain a shocking 45%!
Many kids are spending less time exercising and more time in front of the TV, computer, or video-game console. And today’s busy families have fewer free moments or knowledge to prepare nutritious, home-cooked meals.
Preventing kids from becoming overweight means adapting the way your family eats and exercises, and how you spend time together. Helping kids lead healthy lifestyles begins with parents who lead by example.
If you’re worried that your child or teen may be overweight, make an appointment with nutritionist or nutrition therapist, who can assess eating and activity habits and make suggestions on how to make positive changes. The nutritionist also may send you to visit a doctor to screen for some of the medical conditions that can be associated with obesity.
The Effects of Obesity
Obesity increases the risk for serious health conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — all once considered exclusively adult diseases. Obese kids also may be prone to low self-esteem that stems from being teased, bullied, or rejected by peers.
Kids who are unhappy with their weight may be more likely than average-weight kids to:
- develop unhealthy dieting habits and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia
- be more prone to depression
- be at risk for substance abuse
Overweight and obese kids are at risk for developing medical problems that affect their present and future health and quality of life, including:
- high blood pressure, high cholesterol and abnormal blood lipid levels, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes
- bone and joint problems
- shortness of breath that makes exercise, sports, or any physical activity more difficult and may aggravate the symptoms or increase the chances of developing asthma
- restless or disordered sleep patterns, such as obstructive sleep apnea
- tendency to mature earlier (overweight kids may be taller and more sexually mature than their peers, raising expectations that they should act as old as they look, not as old as they are; overweight girls may have irregular menstrual cycles and fertility problems in adulthood)
- liver and gall bladder disease
Cardiovascular risk factors present in childhood (including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes) can lead to serious medical problems like heart disease, heart failure, and stroke as adults. Preventing or treating overweight and obesity in kids may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease as they get older.
Causes of Overweight
A number of factors contribute to becoming overweight. Genetics, lifestyle habits, or a combination of both may be involved. In some instances, endocrine problems, genetic syndromes, and medications can be associated with excessive weight gain.
Much of what we eat is quick and easy — from fat-laden fast food to microwave and pre-packaged meals. Daily schedules are so jam-packed that there’s little time to prepare healthier meals or to squeeze in some exercise. Portion sizes, in the home and out, have grown greatly.
Plus, now more than ever life is sedentary — kids spend more time playing with electronic devices, from computers to handheld video game systems, than actively playing outside. Television is a major culprit. Not surprisingly, TV in the bedroom is also linked to increased likelihood of being overweight.
Current guidelines recommend that kids over 2 years old get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. Babies and toddlers should be active for 15 minutes every hour (a total of 3 hours for every 12 waking hours) each day.
Genetics also plays a role — genes help determine body type and how your body stores and burns fat just like they help determine other traits. Genes alone, however, cannot explain the current obesity crisis. Because both genes and habits can be passed down from one generation to the next, multiple members of a family may struggle with weight.
People in the same family tend to have similar eating patterns, maintain the same levels of physical activity, and adopt the same attitudes toward being overweight. Studies have shown that a child’s risk of obesity greatly increases if one or more parent is overweight or obese.
Preventing Overweight and Obesity
The key to keeping kids of all ages at a healthy weight is taking a whole-family approach. It’s the “practice what you preach” mentality. Make healthy eating and exercise a family affair. Get your kids involved by letting them help you plan and prepare healthy meals, and take them along when you go grocery shopping so they can learn how to make good food choices.
And avoid falling into these common food/eating behaviour traps:
- Don’t reward kids for good behaviour or try to stop bad behaviour with sweets or treats. Come up with other solutions to modify their behaviour.
- Don’t maintain a clean-plate policy. Be aware of kids’ hunger cues. Even babies who turn away from the bottle or breast send signals that they’re full. If kids are satisfied, don’t force them to continue eating. Reinforce the idea that they should only eat when they’re hungry.
- Don’t talk about “bad foods” or completely eliminate all sweets and favourite snacks from kids’ diets. Kids may rebel and over-eat these forbidden foods outside the home or sneak them in on their own. Instead make your own delicious sweets at home without sugar and additives.
Recommendations by Age
Additional recommendations for kids of all ages:
- Birth to age 1: In addition to its many health benefits, breastfeeding may help prevent excessive weight gain. Though the exact mechanism is not known, breastfed babies may be more able to control their own intake and follow their own internal hunger cues.
- Ages 1 to 5: Start good habits early. Help shape food preferences by offering a variety of healthy foods. Encourage kids’ natural tendency to be active and help them build on developing skills. Shop and cook veggies with them – let them be part of the process.
- Ages 6 to 12: Encourage kids to be physically active every day. Keep your kids active at home, too, through everyday activities like walking and playing in the yard. Let them be more involved in making good food choices, such as packing lunch.
- Ages 13 to 18: Teens like fast food, but try to steer them toward healthier choices like grilled chicken sandwiches, salads, and smaller sizes. Teach them how to prepare healthy meals and snacks at home. Encourage teens to be active every day.
- All ages: Cut down on TV, computer, and video game time and discourage eating while watching the tube. Serve a variety of healthy foods and eat meals together as often as possible. Encourage kids to have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, limit or even better cut off sugar-sweetened beverages, and eat breakfast every day.
If you eat well, exercise regularly, and incorporate healthy habits into your family’s daily life, you’re modelling a healthy lifestyle for your kids that will last. Talk to them about the importance of eating well and being active, but make it a family affair that will become second nature for everyone.
Most of all let your kids know you love them and that you want to help them be happy and healthy.
Sources: www.kidshealth.org (Mary L. Gavin, MD), www.weightlossresources.co.uk, www.bmj.com, Nutriplanet Health Hub