Confronting Childhood Obesity

Confronting Childhood Obesity

Dr Cesar Lara

Our children will die younger than we will.

No doubt about it, that's a scary statement—and one that can become a fact if we continue with the same bad habits of the last four decades. Diagnosing five-year-olds with adult-onset diabetes and children with high liver enzymes was unheard of in the past. We live in a toxic environment, but it doesn't need to be this way.

How Big of a Problem Is Childhood Obesity

Since the 1970s, obesity in children has more than tripled in the US(1). Data from 2015 - 2016 reveals that nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and adolescents (6 to 19 years) has obesity(2).

Let's look at the immediate and long-term effects of obesity on physical, social, and emotional health.

Children with obesity:

  • are at an increased risk of other chronic conditions and diseases that influence physical and mental health, such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and risk factors for heart disease.
  • are teased and bullied more than their normal-weight peers, which leads to a more likely chance of lower self-esteem, social isolation, and depression.
  • are more likely to carry obesity into adulthood.

Why Is Childhood Obesity a Problem?

Childhood obesity is a multifaceted health issue. Many people rely on convenient processed foods, fast foods, packaged snacks, sugary drinks, juices, and candy to feed themselves and their children.

The excessive amount of sugar and processed food in the standard American diet is no accident. Industry practices, regulatory failures, and food advertising(3) have fueled this explosion.

Children consume approximately half of their calories at school; however, school lunches tend to tilt toward processed foods high in unhealthy fat, sugar, and sodium.

When we combine this with the progressive inactivity of children and increased screen time, the result is unhealthy weight gain(4). Playgrounds, school physical education(5), and after-school programs have all dwindled dramatically—while vending machines with junk food are now everywhere in schools.

The US Department of Education reports 97% of high school students, 91% of elementary students, and 80% of kindergarten students are computer users. Worldwide, people use social media about 1.8 hours daily, America is more than double at 4.7 hours.

With these statistics, no doubt getting sedentary children (or even sedentary adults) to become more active can be a challenge. However, you can create fun, loving connections by adding movement into your routine.

You Can Make a Difference in Childhood Obesity

It can be a challenge for parents and children to make healthy food choices and get plenty of physical activity when they are exposed to toxic environments that do not encourage healthy habits. Keep in mind that children learn their behaviors from adults.

The following tips will help you lead by example and guide your children to health.

Promote Physical Activity

  • Create walking groups with friends or coworkers to encourage each other. Bring your children along!
  • Limit screen time, such as video games, electronic devices, and TV.
  • Play throughout the day. Make it fun—don’t only focus on structured exercise.
  • Create activity cards and use them as a game. Paste a picture of a physical activity on the card, then the child, or adult, chooses a card and demonstrates the movement.
  • Write a short story with a child that promotes activity as a part of the story.

Teach Healthy Eating Habits

  • Eat at home. Eating out or having fast food more than once a week, and not eating fresh fruits and vegetables, places your family at a higher risk for obesity.
  • Have your kids help with preparing the shopping list.
  • Prepare lunch foods and freeze them. Start packing your child's lunch the night before.
  • Get your kids involved in the kitchen with you; they can measure ingredients, crack eggs, and when they get older, peel the veggies.
  • Keep healthy, unprocessed foods available. By keeping fruits and vegetables around, your child can learn to like and choose them.
  • Offer water instead of juice, soda, or sports drinks.
  • Prepare foods in healthy ways. Small changes in the way you prepare meals and snacks will make a big difference. Bake instead of fry. Use unrefined oil versus a vegetable or canola oil.

Maximize Sleep Quality

A 2015 review found that a shorter sleep duration(6) in children and adolescents more than doubles the risk of becoming overweight or obese.

  • Academy of Sleep Medicine(7) concludes that for every 24 hours children ages 6 to 12 years old need 9 to 12 hours of sleep, and teens ages 13 to 18 years old need 8 to 10 hours of sleep.
  • Reduce bright light in the house in the evening. Limit exposure to blue-light emitting devices, such as phones, electronic devices, and TV.
  • Eat dinner early in the evening and discourage sugary late-night snacks.
  • Set a bedtime. Children thrive on routines, so having a pattern of low-key activities at night will help them relax and fall asleep.

Provide Emotional Support

Often, those who are overweight have low self-esteem and exercising might be a bit awkward or embarrassing. This is a common reason why some obese people stay obese.

  • Providing some positive reinforcement and emotional support can do wonders for those trying to live a healthier life and lose weight.
  • Support groups benefit both children and adults—just providing an ear and a supportive space to those in need is a useful way to give encouragement and guidance in the right direction.

Take Action to Combat Obesity

By not taking action—for the first time in history—children's life spans will be less than their parents and limited by disease.

Fortunately, preventative measures will help fight childhood obesity, and with a few simple lifestyle changes, people of all ages can be healthier, lose weight, and live a longer and fuller life.

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