Anyone who has ever struggled to lose weight and keep it off knows that the task requires information, motivation and dedication to a lifetime of healthy eating and regular exercise. As an adult, you understand that a juicy, ripe orange is better for you than a candy bar. That too many hours in front of the television can result in a roll around the mid-section. Children, however, dont often grasp the theory of weight management, and today, more kids than ever are overweight or obese.
According to the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 17% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 in the U.S. are obese. These individuals are more likely to become obese adults. One study indicated that 80% of children who were overweight when they were 10-15 years old were obese at age 25. If being overweight shows up as a problem before the age of eight, obesity later in life is more likely to be severe, according to data on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. But children dont usually study statistics. Its up to parents (with the help of healthcare providers) to guide kids toward good eating and exercise habits for a healthy adulthood.
Factors that contribute to children being overweight are, just as they are in adults, largely related to lifestyle. Adequate exercise coupled with healthy eating is the key to maintaining a normal weight for all ages. Sedentary children are more likely to be overweight because sitting in front of a television or computer screen doesnt burn calories. Time spent on these activities replaces those that do require physical energy such as playing outside and engaging in sports. Munching on high calorie or high fat snacks while watching TV or playing computer games just compounds the problem. Children are especially susceptible to advertisements for fast food and sugary treats and cereals.
The consequences for children who are overweight and obese are serious. They include an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and snoring, asthma and joint problems.
Psychosocial issues are also a concern.
Socially, overweight kids are at risk for being rejected by their peers and tend to have lower self-esteem, said Rene Klotz, Family Nurse Practitioner at Cortez Primary Care.
Klotz says that children should be monitored to maintain a healthy weight right from birth. Healthcare providers use height/weight charts to track a childs growth pattern during office visits.
We measure weight, length and head circumference, said Klotz. If a child is at or above 90% of the normal weight according to the charts, we keep an eye on that. In babies, when we see a big jump in weight, especially without a corresponding increase in length, that also gets our attention.
This doesnt mean, however, that chubby babies are put on diets.
In infancy, we dont limit much because babies need calories for proper brain development, said Klotz. Around age one, if a child is tending toward overweight, small adjustments may be made such as putting them on 2% milk instead of whole milk. If they continue to gain weight we might even switch them to skim milk, said Klotz. By age two, children become more active and, in many cases, baby fat will take care of itself.
On the food side of the equation, Klotz recommends that parents set a good example by making healthy choices for themselves and the entire family. Remember, children dont do the grocery shopping, so what ends up in the pantry is up to mom and dad.
Keep low calorie snacks on hand such as pretzels, popcorn, raisins and carrot and celery sticks, said Klotz. Dont let kids skip meals, and dont let them graze throughout the day. Keep treats like cookies, chips, candy and ice cream to a minimum. And we really frown on kids drinking soda, said Klotz.
Klotz advises parents not to force children to clean their plates.
The emphasis should be on having them eat until they feel full, she said. Moderation is the key.
Its also important for kids to get enough fiber.
We have a lot of parents who come in concerned about their children being constipated, said Klotz. If fat is taking the place of fiber in the diet, kids may gain weight and therefore have a problem with constipation. Klotz suggests that children drink plenty of non-sugary fluids and eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, high fiber cereal and oatmeal. Parents should choose whole wheat bread products, even for things like pizza, said Klotz.
Given the choice, most kids will reach for a cookie over an apple.
How can children learn to eat more of the foods that are good for them and less of the ones that are not as good? Klotz encourages her youngest patients to eat from the rainbow by choosing foods of many different colors. She reminds them that when they eat well they have more energy to play hard.
Try to keep kids active. Dont park them in front of the television too much, said Klotz. She encourages parents to get outside with their children as much as possible. Go to the park or get on bikes together, she said.
Parents can also support their children by maintaining normal weights themselves, eating meals as a family and making sure that children get enough sleep each night. Tired, cranky kids just like adults may reach for unhealthy foods for comfort.
Showering children with praise when they make good food choices is helpful, but be careful not to emphasize being thin. Healthy and active should be the focus, not physical appearance.
Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colorado. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal healthcare provider.