Baby fat is something children are supposed to outgrow, not grow in to. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in every five children in the United States is overweight or obese. That’s twice as many overweight children as 20 years ago. Extra pounds and too-big waistlines have serious consequences for children, including self-esteem and social problems and increased risk for chronic diseases.
Why are so many children tipping the scales? Experts say there is no single cause of childhood obesity. Genetics plays a role, but too little physical activity and poor food choices are more often the culprits.
Too little activity. Anyone up for a breathless game of tag, kick-the-can, hopscotch? Childhood should be filled with hours of energetic play, but children today are less active than past generations. With more families living in cities, fewer children walk to school, and parents may keep children indoors more often out of concern for their safety. Adding to the problem, many schools have cut back on physical education programs. “Physical activity is great for building children’s muscle tone and cardiovascular system; however, I feel what’s more important is that exercise teaches children good active habits early on and keeps them away from unhealthy snacking and overeating,” says Jerrold Smith, M.D., a pediatrician with Community Health Network on the East Side.
Television troubles. Almost half of all 8- to 16-year-olds watch three to five hours of television daily. Children who watch the most television are also most likely to be obese. A study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that the rate of obesity rose 2 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds for every additional hour spent watching television. “The problem with television viewing for children is twofold,” says Dr. Smith. “Unlike other more physical forms of recreation, it takes little energy to watch television, plus kids slip into the easy bad habit of snacking while viewing.”
Food woes. Our environment is loaded with food temptations. High-calorie foods are available everywhere a child turns — in school vending machines, at fast-food restaurants, at corner convenience stores and even in kitchen cupboards at home. Fruits and vegetables are easily ignored in favor of high-calorie snacks such as potato chips. Hectic schedules mean home-cooked family meals are often skipped and replaced with less nutritious grab-and-go foods eaten on the run. Families eat out at restaurants more often too, where portion sizes have ballooned, providing too many calories and too much fat.
Why you should be concerned
Being overweight or obese places a child at risk for many health problems. An obese child is more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, a condition that usually occurs only in adults. According to the National Institutes of Health, there has been an alarming increase in diabetes among obese children and adolescents recently.
Obese children often have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, increasing their risk for heart disease. Children who are obese are more likely to have asthma and sleep apnea, a breathing problem that interrupts sleep, as well as bone and joint disorders. And overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults.
The psychological stress that overweight children experience can be as devastating as the medical problems. They are often teased by other children and as a result suffer poor self-image, low self-esteem and depression.
What you can do
Helping your children to have a healthy body weight is a family affair. Instead of putting the focus on the overweight child, experts recommend that the whole family get involved in making healthy changes in activity and eating habits. As a parent, you are the most significant role model for your children, so it’s important that you set an example with healthy lifestyle habits.
Get up and move. Physical activity is a great way for you to spend quality time with your children. Emphasize the fun of an activity rather than skill.
- Build family activity into every day, perhaps taking an after-dinner walk or bike ride or dancing to fast music in the living room.
- Plan active family outings, such as hikes, ice-skating, swimming or Frisbee. Try a family vacation that centers around canoeing, bicycling, camping or swimming.
- On birthdays, give presents that encourage activity, such as inline skates or a basketball.
- Set guidelines for how long your children can watch television or play computer or video games.
Choose healthy foods. Use the Food Guide Pyramid as a guide for food choices. Serve fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lean meats and poultry. Use low-fat or nonfat milk products (except for children younger than 2 years old).
- Keep healthy snack foods in the house, such as fresh fruit, raisins, pretzels, string cheese and popcorn.
- Have your children start the day with a good breakfast, such as whole-grain cereal with fruit and low-fat milk, whole wheat toast with peanut butter, a fruit smoothie made with yogurt or even leftover vegetable pizza.
- Involve kids in shopping for and preparing meals. Children like to eat what they’ve helped prepare.
- Don’t forbid “bad” foods. Instead, teach your children about foods that can be eaten every day and those that should be eaten only now and then.
Foster self-esteem. Children are more likely to make healthy changes when they feel good about themselves. “Let’s face it, kids can be cruel to an overweight child,” says Dr. Smith. “An overweight child often turns to food for solace; it’s how he or she handles situations. The goal is to help make a child feel valuable while helping him or her with healthier lifestyle choices.”
What to do if you're concerned
If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, first talk to your pediatrician. Your child’s doctor can determine whether your child is at a healthy weight by calculating his or her body mass index (BMI). BMI, a ratio of weight to height, is considered the best method for evaluating weight in children. (See eCommunity.com/myCommunity for a BMI tool calculator for children.) Your pediatrician will compare this number to a growth chart for children of your child’s same age and sex.
Your pediatrician can help you identify appropriate weight management goals for your child. Often, the goal isn’t to lose weight, but to change behavior. Restrictive diets are not recommended for overweight children. Rather, the goal is to help them maintain their weight as they grow taller. Another approach is to help a child burn more calories by being more physically active. A registered dietitian can provide guidance on eating behaviors, meal planning and shopping. If your child is at risk for medical problems, your doctor may recommend a formal weight management program staffed by a team of health professionals, such as a pediatrician, dietitian and psychologist.