Why are so many kids overweight these days? What can we do to help our child avoid obesity and develop healthy eating habits?
The "why" part of your question isn't as easy to answer as you might suppose. To a certain extent, the reason for the weight-related issues we're facing in America today is the same for young and old alike. Simply put, over an extended period of time, more calories are going in than are being used, and our bodies are responding by storing the extra fuel as fat.
Obviously, the long answer is more complex. There are a number of interrelated factors affecting how an individual gains or loses weight, and the impact of each one of them varies considerably from person to person. Heredity is important, of course: certain people gravitate toward being thin or overweight no matter what they eat. But it's a mistake to attribute weight and body shape entirely to genes. Activity levels are also important, particularly in the case of contemporary kids who are now spending increasingly more time in front of the TV or the computer screen. So are family eating habits, the influence of culture (particularly in the area of portion sizes), the predominance of "fast" and pre-packaged foods and the relationship between food, emotions and socializing.
What can you do to help your child stay trim and healthy in a society that seems geared to promote obesity? In a way this is like asking, "How can I help prevent my child from becoming a smoker or a drug user?" Certainly there are defensive measures to consider, but accentuating the positive and becoming a role model of healthy eating and physical activity is definitely preferable. Like so many other aspects of parenting, it's a matter of avoiding extremes. You can't afford to sit back and let marketers and media determine what your family will eat. But neither should you become an uptight, repressive food dictator. Here are some thoughts you should keep in mind and some strategies you can try.
If your child is a toddler or a preschooler, start now to establish healthy patterns of diet and exercise. Give him many opportunities to try a variety of nutritious foods in modest quantities. Whatever you do, don't force him to sit for hours until he finishes every last morsel on the plate. He should eat when he's hungry and stop when he's not. Stay away from fatty, salty, sugary or "fast" foods that are aggressively marketed to kids through colorful packaging and TV ads. Never use food to manipulate a child's behavior. And establish clear limits and expectations regarding computer time as well as TV and video viewing. Remember, a child probably won't become less attached to these sedentary activities as he gets older, so be very careful about the habits you set in place for him at a young age.
If you're raising school-age kids or adolescents, it's especially important to fight the temptation to use restaurants, fast-food chains and pizza deliveries as your family's primary food suppliers. This is easy to do when you're dealing with the pressures of extracurricular activities and hectic schedules. That's not to mention that a child's interest in the Internet, video games, movies and TV goes into high gear at this age. The amount of time spent sitting and staring at screens can increase exponentially as a result.
One of the best ways to combat these trends is to establish several regular family meal times every week. This will take some effort, but older children and teens can and should be involved in the planning, shopping, preparation, serving and cleanup. These should be times to introduce and reinforce the value of such staple items as vegetables, fruits, lean meats and whole grains.
While you're planning the family's sit-down meals, think through with your kids what they're going to do about breakfast and lunch. A wholesome breakfast (juice, fruit and whole-grain cereal) and a packed lunch may require some extra planning, but they're well worth the effort. Skipping meals (especially breakfast) is common among teens, but definitely not recommended by nutrition experts.
In the meantime, phase out soft drinks and other flavored, sweetened beverages. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables available as snacks (nuts can be great snacks, too, as long as they're consumed in small portions). Set some clear limits on recreational screen time – TV, videos, electronic games and Internet. And encourage all kinds of physical activity. You'll be glad you did.
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