According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of overweight children and adolescents has doubled over the past two to three decades, in both sexes and all ages and races. Obese children are developing chronic diseases previously diagnosed only in adults, such as type 2 diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, hypertension, sleep apnea, orthopedic problems and liver disease. Obesity can have many causes, but the major determinants are diet and lifestyle. Here, parents have a role to play in preventing childhood obesity.
Turn Off the Television
Aside from school and sleep, American children and adolescents spend more time watching television than doing any other activity. Not surprisingly, kids who watch the most TV have the highest rates of obesity and studies have shown that increased time spent watching television is associated with increased body weight.
Television can contribute to weight gain in several ways. Most obviously, it is a sedentary activity. When TV is combined with snacking kids learn mindless eating and they often overeat. Furthermore, companies selling foods high in sugar and fat spend enormous amounts of money on television commercials targeting children, hoping kids will influence what their parents buy and develop lifelong habits of eating their products. As marketing of junk food has increased, so has consumption of these products.
Parents can move televisions out of bedrooms and limit time spent watching TV and playing videos games to one or two hours per day. Children need opportunities for daily exercise, whether it means joining a sports team, taking a dance class or playing outdoors with friends. These activities also foster social and intellectual development.
Give Good Nutrition
Because adults often retain the eating habits they learn when they are young, good nutrition is especially important for children. Parents should set regular meal and snack times and provide healthy food choices. They should encourage kids to eat slowly because satiety signals will be better understood and food is digested more effectively when the body is relaxed.
Children should be taught to eat only when they are hungry and food should not be used as a reward or punishment. Caregivers should decide which foods children eat, and children should decide how much they consume to satisfy hunger.
Parents can involve kids in grocery shopping and food preparation to help them learn about nutrition and develop good food habits. If parents need more information about nutrition and healthy meal preparation, they can take cooking classes with their children. Creating new mealtime traditions that fit into a busy schedule can be challenging but well worth the effort.
Eat Well Away From Home
Home isn’t the only place where children eat; restaurants and school lunches are also important factors in nutrition and childhood obesity. Parents can help kids select healthy meals when eating out, and creating good eating habits at home will teach kids to make smart food choices on their own.
Caregivers should be aware of what their children are eating at school, not just for lunch but from vending machines as well. Parents can discuss these issues at meetings of Parent Teacher Associations and with school administrators and policy makers at local and state levels. They can also provide kids with healthy snacks to take to school as vending machine alternatives.
Be a Good Role Model
Parents and caregivers are role models for children. If they provide healthy foods and encourage daily physical activity, kids will learn and repeat these behaviors. When parents set a good example and are consistent in their rules, children have a better chance of growing into healthy adults.