How to Prevent Childhood Obesity

WATCHING YOUR CHILD’S WEIGHT IS NOT JUST ABOUT PREVENTING THEM FROM BECOMING TOO FAT OR TOO THIN—IT’S INTENDED TO HELP THEM DEVELOP HABITS AND KNOWLEDGE THAT WILL LAST THEIR LIFETIME

FOCUS

The focus is not on a restricted diet or on losing weight at all in most cases. My intention, and hopefully yours, is to create A Healthy Lifestyle For a Lifetime. Food selection and eating is a large part of the picture, but only a part. We need to help our children meet their nutritional needs and develop a regular pattern of physical activity.

SET THE EXAMPLE

How you eat and how much you eat sets the example for your children. Our children learn their health habits from us and often mimic our adult behavior, whether it’s our food habits, our participation in physical activities or our forms of relaxation. If you get out and exercise, take walks, or participate in sports, they are more likely to enjoy that kind of active life themselves. On the other hand, if you wind down watching TV, they are more likely to follow that example too.

EMPHASIZE MEALTIME AND GOOD MEALTIME BEHAVIOR

Try to have your family sit together for meal time. That structure usually slows everyone’s eating if distractions, such as television, are discouraged and conversation is encouraged. Since it often takes twenty minutes to “feel full,” if we slow down at the table, we tend to eat less as we eat slower. Conversation is perhaps the best way to slow the meal, but you can also play the One Bite Game. You have to set your utensils down between bites. You have to pick up your utensils each time you want to take another bite. Winner can get a reward (as long as it's not more food).

DE-EMPHASIZE FOOD

Food (desserts, snacks) should not be used as a reward or punishment. This makes food more important in a child’s mind. Instead, look for special activities as rewards. Often children most value the time they spend with you, particularly if participating in something you both enjoy.

PROVIDE HEALTHFUL FOOD

Incorporate healthy food as part of a healthy life style. We need to eat a variety of foods to meet all of our nutritional needs. Under most circumstances, it is reasonable to allow children an occasional high-calorie dessert if they have met their nutritional needs. Fruit can be encouraged as a much healthier choice. And as I often remind kids that come to see me, if there's no room for vegetables, there's no room for desert.

HAVE YOUR CHILDREN HELP TO SELECT THE FOOD AND PREPARE THE MEAL

Grocery shopping can be a way to teach your children about good nutrition. The problem of course is that they may have seen advertisements for “junk” foods. In the same way that you may have to edit what television shows or movies they watch, you may have to help guide them to better eating. Remember that the way most grocery stores are set up, the healthier food is around the walls, while the prepared canned and boxed groceries are on the center aisles.

Meal preparation also offers the opportunity for guidance and instruction as well as a time for wholesome activity together. Enjoy, enjoy.

LIQUIDS AND SOLIDS

They will fill you and your children. For the child trying to gain weight, it is better to limit liquids until the latter part of the meal (and again slow down). For those trying to lose, having a glass of water or low calorie drink before a meal may lessen appetites for larger amounts of food during the meal. But remember, juice and sodas are loaded with calories and increase the potential for tooth decay (they both have as much as 10 teaspoons of sugar in 12 ounces, as you will learn on our blogpost about juices and sportsdrinks insert link). Diet sodas will reduce the sugar and calorie intake but offer little nutritional value, and all carbonated drinks have the potential to decrease bone density. A far better “diet” drink is the one kids often forget: water.

SERVING SIZE

Servings are approximate for children based on age, activity, gender, and body build. Use your judgment, recognizing that most children gain 5 pounds and grow 2 inches yearly. Let your children determine how much they eat, as long as the food is healthy, the portions are not excessive and they are growing and gaining appropriately. (Our blogpost on portion size provides specific guidelines, if you would like theminsert link). When parents exert too much control, often children do not learn how to regulate their own appetites.

LIMIT SNACKS

Snacks are not necessarily bad. Most children require food every 4 – 5 hours. Thus most days, a snack should be included for most toddlers and school aged children. To discourage this from interfering with a meal, snacks should be consumed at least 1 1/2 hours before a meal. Having a snack in the kitchen or dining room lessens the tendency to overeat while watching television or doing homework. Again, this is an opportunity to offer healthful foods to help your child grow well.

WILL POWER

Most children (and some adults) have little will power. If sugary or high calorie treats are in the pantry, someone probably is going to eat them, and not always when or how you want them to. Children tend to want to eat the same kinds of snacks their parents do. So keep fresh fruits and vegetables available. You will all eat healthier. And see our blogposts on high fiber foods, sweeteners and portion control insert link.

FAST FOOD

Most toddlers prefer fruit and vegetables. Fast food chains spend billions of dollars each year to change those preferences. The meals they serve are often higher in fat, calories and salt. Teens often consume as much as 11 % of their calories from carbonated beverages. Those patterns will have the potential to lead to increase in weight over time. When possible, have more meals at home and carefully choose the foods you serve.

ENCOURAGE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

When you and I and Abe Lincoln walked to school and split logs in our spare time, we had physical activity that helped us to control our weight. Children need approximately 1 hour of physically active time daily. Offer them time to participate in organized physical activity, or encourage them to play in supervised areas on a regular basis after school and on weekends.

If possible, allow them to ride or walk to school. Limit their television and computer time. I recommend an hour or less of non-homework screen time on school nights and less than 2 hours per day on weekends. Their choices for leisure time will often then include more physical activity. Again, please remember they will be more willing to accept this if you model this good behavior for them.

CAR POWER

You have the power of your car. Leave it in the garage and encourage walking with your children to nearby parks, schools and recreation facilities. You can provide transportation to sports practices and physical recreation. And at the same time, you must remember you have the choice of whether or not to drive to the fast food restaurants.

VALUE YOUR CHILDREN

Your children want to know they are loved and have pleased you. Their self esteem is important, regardless of their weight, physical activity, appetite, intake, or school performance. Spend time with them, and when you can, incorporate physical activity and model good nutrition.

ENCOURAGE YOUR SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITIES TO FOLLOW YOUR LEAD

Schools may have good reasons for providing vending machines in the hallways and “fast food” in their lunch rooms. They may also be decreasing emphasis on physical education for other good reasons as well. However, your input and participation as a parent and as your child’s guardian is important to assure that your children learn what they need to know for a lifetime of good health.

MEDICAL SUPERVISION

Regular check-ups are essential for your children. They need to be screened for nutritional problems and for other problems that can arise. Please remember to keep your scheduled appointments, and let us take the time together to review your child’s growth and development as well as his or her diet and activity. Please ask the questions that concern you, and let your doctors and their staffs work to find the answers for your family and your particular circumstances.

Dr. Stan Cohen 16 July 2014

Dr. Stan Cohen is one of our founders and our CEO as well as the Chairman of our Medical Advisory Board. Dr. Stan is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition. He is a Read More

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