author: Ilaria St. Florian, MS, RD
It is one of the most serious public health challenges of this century. No, not COVID-19. It is childhood obesity.
Here are some worrying statistics: Over the past four decades, childhood obesity rates have risen in the United States, from 5% in 1978 to 18.5% in 2016. Its prevalence has continued to rise since the pandemic. Last August, nearly 22% of children and teens in the United States were obese, up from 19% just one year earlier. Today, 1 in 5 children and adolescents lives with this potentially fatal and disabling condition.
As a registered dietitian, I treat many young adults whose excess weight puts them at risk for high blood pressure and hyperlipidemia, diabeticSleep apnea, poor self-confidence and depression. Even before the pandemic, I saw children — some of them middle school age — who had diabetes, had fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. These young people are more likely than others to develop cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases as adults, as well as cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas. Because obesity started in childhood, it will be difficult to treat in adulthood.
To reduce obesity risk factors, you need to recognize them. The new school year is the perfect time to start.
First, let’s distinguish overweight from obesity. Both conditions indicate an unhealthy amount of body fat. Children and teens who are overweight have a BMI above 85 but less than 95 percent for age and gender. Those who are obese have a BMI greater than the 95th percentile. A BMI above the 99th percentile indicates severe obesity.
Many factors can affect the eating and exercise habits of children. Some are inherited, such as genetics. Others are environmental, such as family stress, cultural attitudes toward food, low socioeconomic status, and limited access to safe recreation or affordable healthy food options.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some families I work with didn’t want their children out, either out of fear of disease or unsafe neighborhoods. When learning became online, many of my patients lost their daily trips to and from school, not to mention vacation, gym time, and sports programs. More kids are spending time indoors glued to their screens. They even did schoolwork in bed. Parents were working from home, too. Being tired on the inside made everyone stable. Many children deal with the stress and boredom of coming home by grazing all day. So did the parents.
The good news is that there are really simple steps that everyone can take to combat this problem. Since kids usually follow the models set by their parents, I’m educating everyone to follow this simple tip:
1. Choose healthy snacks. Avoid refined carbohydrates like chips and crackers. It’s cheap and tastes good but contains no fiber or protein, so it doesn’t fill you up. Let your kids enjoy a small bag of chips as long as they have some cheese and carrots.
2. Serve snacks on a plate. This allows your children to see what – and how much – they are eating.
3. Buy healthy school lunches. Children have the ability to choose what they eat. They can have a pizza or a sandwich and a piece of fruit and milk. Help them make the best choices. If they don’t want to eat fruit during lunch, encourage them to take a piece with them for later.
4. Eliminate soda and juice. Drinking juice is not the same as eating fruit. If your kids must drink juice, don’t limit them to no more than 4-8 ounces. Make sure it’s 100% fruit juice with no added sugar daily.
5. Determine meal times to prevent grazing all day and eating late at night.
6. Discourage older children to take long naps. They tend to fall asleep when they get home from school, stay awake, and eat at odd hours, which can lead to weight gain.
7. Limit screen time. Research indicates that American children spend more than six hours a day watching television, video games, blogging, or other social media. If they are in front of a screen, they are not exercising.
8. Take phones out of the children’s room at night until they sleep. One study found that 3-year-olds who slept less than 10.5 hours a night were 45% more likely than those who got more than 12 hours of sleep to become obese at age 7.
9. Stock up on healthy staples – like beans, fresh fruits and vegetables.
10. The Mindful Eating Model. Eat while seated at a table and be aware and value your food. Eating meals leads to overeating.
Parents are the best teachers of their children. The sooner you expose your kids to healthy foods and eating habits, the more prepared they will be to avoid unhealthy weight gain and the problems it can cause.
About the author
Ellaria St. Florian, MS, RD, is the director of the FANS (Fitness and Nutrition Services) Program at Stamford Health’s KIDS.
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