In a Nutshell
- Child obesity occurs for a number of reasons, not just lack of exercise
- Children should be educated and empowered to make healthy choices
- Model healthy behaviors for your children
Childhood obesity has been recognized as a public health issue in the U.S. for about 30 years. A steep incline in overweight children commenced with the widespread introduction of home-based computers and video game consoles. The incline is believed to have occurred because children were spending less time outside, being physically active, and more sedentary time indoors – negatively impacting natural weight management elements of exercise, Vitamin D production, blood sugar control, gut health, and immunity.
The reduction in outdoor, physical activity is certainly a contributor; however, it is not the only reason for childhood obesity. Other important factors are:
- Parental concerns about safety of children playing outdoors;
- Increases in food portion sizes that have occurred at home and in restaurants;
- Availability and convenience of fast food;
- Increase in the selection of sugary drinks;
- Increase in the use of processed foods at home and in schools;
- Schools cutting recess, and no longer requiring physical education class;
- Reduction in school-organized and intramural/community sports programs;
- Reduction in nutrition education at home and in school (health class, home economics);
- Genetics and heredity (family history);
- Children getting less sleep;
- The persistent but errant belief that children as much of whatever they want because they have great metabolisms.
Childhood afflictions such as diabetes, asthma, thyroid issues, and learning disabilities have also steadily risen, which impact physiological functions and general health.
Unfortunately, stress eating as a result of low self-esteem and poor self-image has increased, likely because of the widespread use of social media and the speed with which gossip, rumors, and cyberbullying travel.
What NOT to Do
Despite children having greater access to structured after-school and weekend activities, parents feel that children are somehow missing out, perceiving their own childhood to be better… Healthier… And consequently become insistent that their children give up preferred activities to spend more time outdoors, with others, engaged in physical activities.
Research shows that shaming or punishing your child for not spending more time outdoors or engaged in physical activities is ineffective in weight management, and worse may have the opposite effect – causing them to gain more weight. Forcing your children to engage in outdoor play or physically demanding activities is not the answer.
Positive Steps you can Take
There are a number of approaches parents can take to weight management for their children. The most important is to model healthy behaviors for them yourself. Children, regardless of age, take behavioral cues from their parents (even when we think they’re not). Parents should:
- Stay active
- Make good food choices
- Prepare healthy snacks and meals at home
- Get annual check-ups
- Spend less time in front of the TV or on devices
In addition to modeling healthy behaviors, here are other effective strategies to raise children’s awareness of obesity and help manage their own weight:
- Educate children on good nutrition
- (Revised) USDA Food Pyramids – MyPyramid (2005), MyPlate [with app] (2011)
- Appropriate portion sizes
- Washing fruits and vegetables before eating
- Educate children how to read food labels
- Trans-fatty acid (“trans fats”) and saturated fats
- Take children grocery shopping with you and let them make choices, coach as needed
- Cook together and eat together
- Limit sugary drinks
- Add a glass of water with every meal and snack
- Invite them to be active with you, even if it’s just running errands
- Together, figure out exercises and activities they may enjoy
- Encourage them in whatever activities they choose
- Even if it is not physically demanding
- Even if they start and stop
- Don’t pressure or force choices you think are better
- Consider limiting screen time, but avoid using it as reward or punishment
- Help ensure that they are getting 8-10 hours of sleep every night (set a daily schedule)
- Prepare their lunch for school
- Make sure they are receiving annual check-ups and discussing concerns with their doctor
- Manage existing medical conditions
Childhood obesity can have complications for your child’s physical, social, and emotional well-being. Childhood obesity has been associated with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, asthma, problems sleeping, fatty liver disease, bone fractures, low self-esteem, behavior and/or learning problems, and depression.
Never place children on a specialized diet without consulting a licensed professional (registered dietician, nutritionist, or physician).
Never provide children with weight loss drugs, even if over the counter.
Overweight children, regardless of the cause of obesity, need a champion (you). They are unable to reverse the issue on their own.
STRENGTH OF EVIDENCE: A
Conclusions are based on an abundance of good-quality, patient-oriented evidence, and supported by national and international health initiatives aimed at reducing and resolving child obesity.
Child obesity has physical, social, mental, and emotional challenges that must be addressed. There are many proven behavioral strategies for helping your child, and these strategies help them adopt healthy habits for the future.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Childhood obesity facts. Overweight & Obesity. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (n.d.). Childhood obesity. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-obesity/symptoms-causes/syc-20354827
- Sahoo, K., Sahoo, B., Choudhury, A.K., Sofi, N.Y., Kumar, R., & Bhadoria, A.S. (2015). Childhood obesity: causes and consequences. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 4(2), 187-192.
- Solomon-Moore, E., Emm-Collison, L.G., Sebire, S.J., Toumpakari, Z., Thompson, J.L., Lawlor, D.A., & Jago, R. (2018). “In my day…” – Parents’ views on children’s physical activity and screen viewing in relation to their own childhood. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(11), 2547, 17p.
- United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA). MyPyramid. Food and Nutrition Service. https://www.fns.usda.gov/mypyramid
- United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA). MyPlate. Food and Nutrition Service. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/
- World Health Organization (WHO). (n.d.). Childhood overweight and obesity. Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/childhood/en/