In the past, when someone thought of obesity, a child was rarely the first thing to come to mind. Children were highly active little creatures who never seemed to slow down. I can count on one hand the overweight children I grew up with.
Sadly, times have changed. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease and Health Promotion, "The prevalence of overweight among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 7% in 1980 to 18.8% in 2004. The rate among adolescents aged 12 to 19 more than tripled, increasing from 5% to 17.1%."
Wow. Those are some scary numbers! Obesity, in itself, is an awful thing to deal with as a child. While most adults have the tact and manners to be, at the least, polite to a person who is overweight, children can unknowingly be quite cruel. Taunting, name calling, bullying, and exclusion are just a few of the afflictions an overweight child will suffer through on a daily basis. But there is much more at stake here than self-confidence. With obesity comes deteriorating health. This isn't just an issue for adults. Children can suffer from diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression and a myriad of other problems. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of the Academy of Pediatrics discovered that overweight girls tend to hit puberty earlier than normal, which can lead to serious health concerns.
So what is the best way to tackle this growing problem? One word. Prevention.
As parents, educators, and role models, we need to be sure our children are receiving the proper messages about what is and is not healthy. In a society that becomes more confusing with each passing day, we MUST be the clear voice of reason. We can not leave children to their own devices and decisions about what is good for them.
So how do we successfully convey the message of healthy living to our children? TODAY nutritionist Joy Bauer has few suggestions and shared them in this article titled 10 Ways To Keep Your Kids From Getting Fat.
She had some great suggestions which I’d like to highlight here.
Number one on Joy’s list is being a healthy role model. Children tend to want to be just like Mom or Dad. If they see you eating potato chips, all the while you’re telling them they should eat fruits and vegetables for snacks, which do you think they’ll chose? Children look up to their parents, not only as heroes, but for guidance. Make sure you practice what you preach, or it will never sink in. As an example, my daughter started watching what I ate very closely when I started my low-carb plan. Now she no longer eats the bun on her Arby’s sandwiches. She says it’s good for her and tastes better that way.
Joy also mentions making healthy food choices fun. Games, taste tests - get creative! I know from personal experience that letting your children help with meal preparation works wonders. While my son will eat anything that isn’t nailed down, my picky daughter won't touch certain foods. One day I asked her to help me cook dinner. The next thing we knew, she was announcing, with pride, that she’d cooked the broccoli and everyone should try it because it is delicious. Of course this meant she’d have to eat some too. Rarely has she made something she didn’t like, once she tried it.
Another idea Joy mentions is using her 90/10 food strategy, which constitutes 90% healthy choices and 10% junk. I don’t deny my kids the “fun” foods. How hard would it be for a child to attend a birthday party and not get any cake or ice cream? But I also do my best to limit the poison, in the form of simple carbs, they ingest. I don’t want them to develop the carb addictions I’ve battled for so many years.
Suggestions number four, six, seven, and eight involve feeding them a healthy breakfast, loading them up on fiber, limiting starchy veggies, and keeping healthy veggies on hand at all times.
I do take issue with her fifth suggestion, which recommends switching children over to non-fat and low-fat foods after the age of two. Her specific example was milk, cheese and yogurt. She subscribes to the common food pyramid belief that the lower-fat counterparts will be a better choice because of the caloric content. I simply cannot go along with that line of thinking. I rarely allow my children to have anything labeled low-fat. Most of the time a low-fat label can be translated to read: "conatins sugar or high fructose corn syrup". Those are two items I prefer my children cut way back on. And don’t think for a minute that children react to carbs any different than adults. My daughter can, and will, eat candy until she’s sick. She can’t seem to help herself. Where if I set a plate of veggies and meat in front of her, she’ll eat until she’s satisfied and then stop. Another thing to consider is the satiety factor. Which item do you think kids will be more likely to overeat – skim milk or whole milk? Odds are the whole milk will make them feel full much faster, due to the fat content, and they will drink less. Fat is not the enemy.
Her ninth suggestion discourages drinking empty calories. I couldn’t agree more. Thankfully she isn’t suggesting fruit juice as an alternative to sugary sodas.
While a healthy diet is a huge factor in preventing obesity, there is one more element that is crucial to staying healthy. Joy addresses this in the last tip, which I’ve quoted below...
“Encourage daily exercise
Get you kids moving and keep them moving – aim for an hour each day. Limit the TV and video games …. and encourage after school sports, bike riding, long walks, jumping rope, hide and seek, rock hunting…anything goes.”
Here is where I personally feel a majority of the guilt lies. With the progress of technology, we have seen children’s entertainment rapidly morph into a state of sedation. Children can be found all over the world in a vegetative state, watching the latest TV program, playing the latest video game, surfing the net. How many of today’s kids do you know that have ever played kick the can? I fear that not only are we raising a generation of couch potatoes, but worry that the imaginations of many children have stagnated. We need to do more than encourage activity. We need to encourage imaginative thinking. A child is much more likely to participate in something that involves their mind and body. Again, this is my personal observation based on my experience as a mother, and for several years, a pre-school teacher. I can’t provide research to back this theory up, but I believe I’m on target here. Children love a good challenge!
So while we work on improving our own health, let’s make sure we are focusing on the health of our children as well. Just a little extra effort can make a big difference. And aren’t our children worth it?