The topic of childhood obesity isn’t new. For more than 30 years, the medical community has warned against the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutritional habits for adults and children.
The percentage of children with obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) has obesity.
Among children, it causes a broad range of health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood, according to the American Heart Association’s website: issues such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, elevated blood cholesterol levels, and even some psychological effects such as low self-esteem, negative body image and depression.
Although genetics and hormonal causes may play a role in some cases of childhood obesity, most causes are due to overeating and under-exercising.
“I believe that obesity is connected to a poor diet — eating a lot of processed foods, drinking sugary drinks and a lack of adequate exercise,” says Dr. Susan R. Shah, of Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics in Twinsburg.
Dr. Sarah Adams, of Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics in Hudson, agrees. “The main culprit for childhood obesity is either a sedentary lifestyle or a caloric intake that is greater than needs,” she says. “The intake of sugar and bad fats, environmental factors such as television, video games and other electronics, as well as poor sleep habits play a very big role.”
One of the best ways to combat unhealthy eating is to “protect the home,” says Dr. Danielle Dimengo, of Akron Children’s Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology. “Don’t bring temptation into the home, especially when there is a serious weight issue.”
“A child’s eating behaviors evolve during the first years of life,” Dimengo says. “Children learn what, when and how much to eat through direct experiences with food and by observing others’ eating habits.”
Mom and dad, it’s up to you to not only lead by example, but also share a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods with your children. Nutrient dense foods (made from nature) contain essential nutrients: macro and micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals to help your child grow strong and healthy as well as fight off disease, control weight and have more energy.
When consulting with patients, Adams and Shah offer the following suggestions.
Dr. Adams’ Tips
Start out slow. Change one or two things in your lifestyle at a time. Eliminate sugary drinks and start with 15 minutes of activity each day. If you try to do too much too fast, it will be too hard to maintain.
Eat breakfast every day! Not only does this help jump start your metabolism, it also will improve academic performance.
Color and proteins. Eat four to five servings of fruits and vegetables (or more) each day; 3 servings of dairy (or other calcium rich food to help mobilize fat cells.) Your diet should be colorful — the more color, the more nutrient rich and filling. Minimize eating proteins that come from animals that have four legs (beef, pork), eat proteins that come from two legs with skin (chicken and turkey), and eat as much protein that comes from no legs (legumes, beans, nuts, fish).
Parents should be good role models. Model good eating habits, watch your own screen time, get good sleep, keep healthy food and snacks in the house, and be active — children are watching, children are listening.
Dr. Shah’s Tips
Get moving. Strive for at least 30-60 minutes of exercise every day — work up a sweat. Join an organized sport, walk, run or bike. If you like to dance, turn up music and dance in your room. Just move your body and have fun.
Drink water. I suggest drinking a small glass of water after brushing your teeth, another small glass after school, and a small glass with every meal. Often, when young children think they are hungry, their body actually may be thirsty.
Eat meals together. Eating meals together creates good family time and helps children think about what they are eating, rather than sitting in front of a tv and eating something that is quick and easy to prepare that typically is less healthy.
Local resources. There are a variety of programs available through local recreational centers or hospitals that educate and support families, as well as offer recreational sports and other activities for children.
If you’re interested in some extra help instilling healthy habits with your child or even learning the best way to address weight with them, check out the Kurbo app.