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How to Beat the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

By Marc Courtiol

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 20 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 11 are now obese, and 18 percent of young people between ages 12 and 19 meet the criteria for obesity. These numbers are startling enough on their own, and they do not even take into account the children who are officially overweight but not obese. All in all, one third of American children are bigger than they should be.

The effects of childhood obesity and overweight go far beyond the surface. According to the CDC, overweight young people have a higher risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol, and this can increase their risk of health problems throughout life. Meanwhile, many overweight youths suffer from bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and emotional problems resulting from low-self-esteem and social stigmatization. When overweight children grow up, continued health problems can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and certain forms of cancer.

In light of all these facts, it is clear that parents should be doing more to make sure their children stay healthy. However, this can be more challenging than it sounds since kids are bombarded with media advertisements for unhealthy food, are pressured by other kids into eating unhealthy foods, and too often do not have healthy food options at school. Meanwhile, kids today consume more media than ever and spend less time outside, meaning that they rarely get the exercise they need.

Many parents accept these things as facts of modern life, but we do our children a disservice when we do not encourage them to be healthy. This is one of those areas where a little tough love on the part of parents can go a long way. Plus, by talking with your children and making them aware of these issues, you can recruit them on the side of health. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:

  • Avoid rewarding kids with sweets. This will get them into the habit of expecting sweet treats whenever they do anything good. Try using other rewards. Sweets may be powerful, but they send a potentially negative message.
  • Serve breakfast. Studies have shown that kids who eat breakfast have lower body-mass indices. Plus, having breakfast gives your child a burst of energy and mental alertness that can help during school.
  • Cut out unnecessary calories.> Even when our kids eat moderately and do not overindulge in desserts, it is common for them to still get hundreds of empty calories from things like sodas and fruit juices. In short, there is no reason for children to drink these things, and it cannot hurt to break this habit. Even most fruit juices that bill themselves as healthy are mostly high-fructose corn syrup. Give your child real, fresh fruit instead.
  • Limit media time. Kids who consume less than two hours of media per day are on average healthier than those who consume more. This includes television, internet, mobile devices, and video games. Many kids initially resist these restrictions, but they soon find other more active ways to fill their time.
  • Use lower-fat/calorie alternatives. Especially when it comes to ingredients in meals, you can usually get away with using lighter alternatives without a significant loss of flavor.
  • Encourage healthier snacks and desserts. Many kids get into the habit of expecting sweet desserts after every meal, and some even expect to have additional sweets as snacks in between meals. You can encourage better habits by making fruits and vegetables available for snacks and desserts and saving those sweets for special occasions.
  • Involve kids in meal planning: Educate yourself as much as possible with regard to health, and involve the kids in the process. Work together to create meals that are both healthy and tasty. Some kids are not interested in this type of involvement, but for others it can spark a lifelong love affair with healthy eating.

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