Taking Action Against Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity is a complicated problem without a single cause. However, we know that when children become overweight, they can increase their risk for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol, high triglycerides (fats in the blood stream), and stroke. It can also cause bone and joint problems, as well as breathing problems, such as sleep apnea or asthma. About 1 in 6 (17%) children in the United States has obesity1, and in a population-based study of 5- to 17-year-olds published by the Journal of Pediatrics, 70 percent of obese youth possessed at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease2.
What increases risk of childhood obesity?
Many factors can have an impact on childhood obesity, including eating and physical activity behaviors, metabolism, genetics, family and home environment, and community and social factors. For some children and families, obesity may be influenced by the following:
- too much time spent being inactive
- not enough active play time or physical activity
- lack of sleep
- lack of places to go in the community to get physical activity
- easy access to inexpensive, high calorie foods and sugary beverages
- lack of access to affordable, healthier foods
- lack of fruits and vegetables
What can I do to help my child?
To help prevent childhood obesity and create healthful eating habits, start simple and encourage the whole family to get involved. Some steps to take when at home, or while working with a healthcare provider:
- Be aware of your child’s growth. There are growth charts available online.
- Growth percentiles between 85% and 95% is considered overweight for children and teens, and percentiles above 95% is considered obesity for children and teens3.
- Identify and overcome family weight loss challenges
- Work as a family to find opportunities for improvement in lifestyle habits, or meet with a healthcare provider for guidance.
- Make family-centered changes
- Behavior change is most effective when there mutual support in the family.
- Enjoy physical activities together
- Try a new game, sports, bicycling, swimming, or walking to get started.
- Prepare healthy meals and snacks
- Provide nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables instead of foods high in added sugars and solid fats.
- Try serving more fruit and vegetables at meals and as snacks.
- Make sure drinking water is always available as a no-calorie alternative to sugary beverages
- Limit juice intake.
- Make smart choices when dining out
- Consider having half the order boxed to-go. What’s better than a 2-for-1 dinner?
- Remember to order fruits and vegetables.
- Ask for dressing on the side and dip instead of pour.
- Avoid fried foods. Choose grilled, baked, and steamed.
- Choose a weight management program geared to children.
- Work with your healthcare team to identify programs that work for your family.
- Be a role model
- Remember the power of being a positive influence with your own behaviors.
"It is never too early to start establishing a healthy home environment around food and nutrition, but keep in mind that every day is a new day to create the right environment," said registered dietitian nutritionist and Academy spokesperson Angela Lemond. "The single best thing you can do is to model the behaviors you want to see in your children."2
Here are some more tips to get started:
Include a Morning Meal
Eat breakfast. It’s considered your child's most important meal of the day. Breakfast breaks the overnight fast (hence the name, break-fast). This meal helps provides necessary carbohydrate to maintain blood sugar levels, primes muscles for the day's work and sends essential nutrients to all cells of the body for growth. Eating breakfast also helps prevent your child's hunger throughout the morning, allowing for greater concentration and problem-solving at school. Who can focus when they’re super hungry? I know I can’t. Research also shows that breakfast eaters have better school attendance, less tardiness and fewer hunger-induced stomachaches in the morning4.
Stick to Meals at Home
Limit eating out. Did you know that portion sizes at quick service restaurants have grown throughout the years? Twenty years ago, an order of French fries was about 2 oz and contained 210 calories, but today's average order of fries is almost 7 oz with 610 calories4. Similarly, a small soft drink was 6.5 oz with 85 calories, but today's serving is closer to 20 oz and nearly 250 calories4.
One study found that all adolescents eat too many calories at fast food restaurants, but overweight adolescents are more likely to overeat when eating out4. Although most restaurants have lower-calorie options and healthy choices, most teens go for the high-calorie burgers, chicken nuggets, French fries and unlimited refills of soft drinks. It’s important to break the chain from fast foods chains, and enjoy more meals and time together at home. Try cooking at home with the whole family, or searching online or working with a healthcare provider to find ideas to include your child with meal prep.
Reduce Portion Size
Behavioral research shows that environmental cues — such as large plates, big cups, and even large utensils — encourage us to eat and drink more than if plates and cups were smaller, so it can be worthwhile to choose smaller plates, cups, bowls, and utensils for everyone in the family.
Eating frequently can also help your child keep hunger at bay. Active children may need to eat two or three nutritious snacks in addition to three meals a day, especially with sports and physically active extracurricular activities. Keeping these snacks at kid-sized portions.
Snacking is not necessarily related to obesity. Kids typically like to snack, and it can be a good opportunity to increase nutrient intake. Just keep the snacks healthy, such as choosing fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and low-fat dairy foods, and keep portion sizes small. Remember, snacks are not meal replacements, and three meals per day is still encouraged.