It is an unhealthy, but reversible trend: Our children are fatter than ever before. In the past 35 years, we have seen a tremendous rise in obesity among children and teens in the United States.
Obese children are at increased risk of becoming obese adults, facing a greater risk of heart disease, stroke and other ailments. Obese or malnourished children tend to get sick more and do worse in school than their normal weight counterparts.
A Different World
Our kitchen cabinets and supermarket shelves are stocked with the sugary, salty, high-fat, processed foods that are increasingly becoming the staples of our diet and the bane of our weight consciousness. Children are bombarded by peer pressure and advertising that make empty-calorie junk foods seem so appealing.
Kids learn that soft drinks, candy, breakfast cereals, etc. are tasty and fun to eat. These notions are reinforced by parents who use certain foods as rewards or treats. Many schools base their menus on outmoded assumptions about what children will or will not like.
Meanwhile, parents are trying to juggle work and home lives and meet children’s needs. The accelerated pace of living creates an enormous demand for convenience foods. Grabbing a quick pizza or dashing through the drive-through often seem not only easy, but downright essential.
Reversing the Trend
Enough doom and gloom! There are many ways that parents can reverse these unhealthy trends without becoming a nutritional Nazi. It is OK to take the kids out for ice cream or let them overindulge a bit on Halloween or special occasions. Making the switch to healthier habits and slimmer kids will have to be a gradual — and fun — process if it is going to work. Think of it as choosing a more healthy lifestyle.
- To get a jump-start on healthy eating, try to instill good habits in infants and toddlers. This may help your child cultivate a taste for nutritious foods. This is a period when you have profound influence over your baby’s developing palate. Take advantage of this opportunity to expose your child to a wide variety of foods. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a kid who loves broccoli at age 2 will not prefer a chips-only diet at age 6. All you can do is put those healthy eating patterns in place and hope for the best. Most children raised in nutrition-minded families maintain good habits as adults.
- Nutritious eating does not have to be time-consuming. It may take some extra time at first, as you study recipes, read labels, browse the shelves and plan meals. But once you get up to speed on what is possible, healthy eating should not slow you down.
- Let your children take part in the planning, purchasing and preparation. Then they will have more of an investment in the final product, which will make it much more appealing.
- Give them choices … no, not between spinach and chocolate! Offer two or three nutritious options and let them decide.
- Provide a wide variety of healthy foods. It is less boring and maybe they will find a few things they really like.
- Snacking is fine, as long as they are mostly healthy snacks. There is nothing wrong with eating between meals; it probably helps keep children on an even keel throughout the day. Have foods like carrot sticks, yogurt and apples prepared and ready to go, to make it easy to make healthy choices.
- Do not keep too much junk food around the house.
- Children need to drink plenty of liquids, but watch out for sodas and other sweetened drinks that offer low nutrition and high sugar. Fruit juice is a good way to consume fruit, but in moderation. Get your kids in the habit of drinking water at an early age.
- Increase the exercise. Overweight kids tend to be the more sedentary ones. Limit television time. Teen-agers may enjoy formal exercise programs while younger children need activities that emphasis play rather than exercise. Organized sports are great for kids who enjoy them. Otherwise, look for ways to get the children walking, biking, running, dancing, climbing, playing games or whatever they like. Select activities that are appropriate and fun for their age. Introduce the activities gradually, giving the kids time to build up their endurance.
- If you are unsure whether your child is significantly overweight, ask the pediatrician. If you are sure, arrange a meeting with the doctor without the child. Together, you can plot out an action plan tailored to your child’s individual needs. Consider seeing a dietitian as well. Unless there is a medical reason, your child probably will not be put on any kind of weight loss medications.
- Children usually respond more rapidly than older adults to a program that emphasizes healthy eating and exercise. Mildly overweight kids may require only a few simple changes. For kids who are substantially obese, however, it makes sense to get professional help to design a gradual weight loss plan. Permanent weight loss can only be achieved with permanent lifestyle changes — and that is only going to happen if you make the changes incrementally.
- Make weight loss a positive experience. Professional help may be useful here, too. It is important to build self-confidence and focus on good health and vitality, rather than that the child looks fat or ugly. A harsh regime may contribute to poor self-image and low self-esteem, which may partially fuel the development of eating disorders and other emotional problems.