Step Up! How to Combat Childhood Obesity
Health is at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days. Maintaining an active lifestyle and a healthy weight plays an important role in our overall health and wellness. However, for the millions of American families struggling with childhood obesity, those goals can feel out of reach. While the problem of childhood obesity can seem daunting, there are some steps that parents, caretakers, and communities can take to help our children live healthier lives.
Statistics on childhood obesity
Childhood obesity affects between 17 and 19 percent of American children and adolescents (ages 2-19). And these rates have been steadily climbing for several decades. The obesity rate for children ages 6-11 rose from around 4 percent to around 17 percent over the past 40 years, while obesity among adolescents (ages 12-19) rose from around 4 percent to over 20 percent.
While childhood obesity affects all demographic groups, it is more prevalent among certain populations and income groups. Hispanic and Black children on average experience the highest rates of childhood obesity (over 20 percent), while white and Asian children tend to have lower rates (below 16 percent).
Children in lower income groups also tend to have higher rates of obesity than those in middle-income and high-income groups. Many low-income families live in “food deserts” – neighborhoods with few supermarkets and thus less access to healthy, non-processed foods. Low-income neighborhoods may also have fewer parks and green spaces where children can play and be active.
Finally, children whose parents and caretakers have less education tend to experience higher rates of obesity. This lack of education can translate into fewer employment opportunities and thus lower income and less access to healthy foods, as well as less knowledge and awareness around healthy food and lifestyle choices.
How to combat childhood obesity
Clearly, the factors driving childhood obesity are complex and varied. Both the causes and the effects of childhood obesity are closely linked not only to health but also to poverty, food security, employment, housing, and social inequities. These deeper factors require larger political and social action to drive long-term change.
In the more immediate term, however, parents and caretakers can help prevent or reduce their children’s risk of obesity through the old standbys: diet, exercise, and sleep.
Important note: Just like adults, children have different body types and growth patterns. The determination of whether a child is in fact overweight or obese should be made by a healthcare professional. Parents and caretakers should not make drastic changes in children’s diets or activity levels without consulting with their pediatrician or other healthcare provider.
While everyone’s caloric and dietary needs differ, the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide some basic diet recommendations for healthy children over the age of 2. Basic rules of thumb include limiting processed foods and sugary soft drinks, monitoring portion sizes, including protein with every meal, and eating at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit every day. Again, you can consult your child’s pediatrician for more targeted nutrition guidance to meet your child’s unique needs and preferences.
With adults and children alike spending more and more time in front of screens, making sure our families stay physically active is more important than ever. Children over the age of 6 should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least three days a week. Sports like soccer, basketball, gymnastics, or dance can help keep kids active and instill a love for movement from a young age. But don’t worry if your child doesn’t enjoy organized sports – things like jumping rope, riding a bike, swimming, hiking, and playing tag all count! For younger children, parents and caretakers should ensure they are engaging in active play throughout the day. This can include things like exploring age-appropriate playground equipment, playing an active game of Simon Says, dancing to their favorite music, or practicing new physical skills like crawling, walking, running, or catching and throwing.
Finally, we all need adequate sleep to maintain optimal health and wellness, including a healthy weight. When we are sleep deprived, we tend to be less active and to make more unhealthy food choices, opting for foods rich in fat and carbohydrates. Sleep deprivation can also increase our body’s production of appetite-stimulating hormones and lower our production of the hormones that make us feel full. And sleep is even more important for children, playing an important role in their physical and cognitive development. On average, children ages 6-12 should aim for 9-12 hours of sleep per 24 hours, while teenagers (ages 13-19) need 8-10 hours. Infants need the most sleep – 12-17 hours per day.
How to support healthy habits in children and families
Model healthy behaviors. Talking to children about the importance of healthy habits is important, but at the end of the day, they are more likely to respond to our actions than to our words. Parents need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk! Make sure you are limiting your screen time, eating your vegetables, and breaking a sweat several times a week. Not only will this model healthy behaviors for the children in your life, it will also improve your own health and wellbeing, giving you more energy to keep up with the kids!
Focus on health, not weight. Parents and caretakers need to strike a balance between encouraging children to maintain a healthy weight and avoiding the potential for future eating and body image disorders. Focus on good health rather than on hitting a certain number on the scale – this goes for you as well as your children! Don’t talk about food as being “good” or “bad” but rather emphasize what healthy foods can do for you – make you strong, help you grow, give you energy to play, etc.
Include children in decisions. We learn better and feel more invested in goals when we are actively involved in them. So get your children involved with the meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking! Let them experiment with foods by picking out a new fruit or vegetable to try. Assign them age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen to show them how ingredients turn into their favorite meals. If you have space, plant a small garden or a pot of herbs and teach them where our food comes from. By showing kids that healthy foods can be interesting and fun, you’ll be encouraging them to make better food choices even when you’re not around.
Donate and advocate for food security. Like we mentioned earlier, many of the factors driving childhood obesity are societal in nature. There are actions we can take beyond our immediate families to help address these factors in our communities. If you’re financially able, donate healthy foods to your local food shelter. There are also programs that help reduce food waste by transporting healthy perishable foods that would otherwise be thrown away from supermarkets and restaurants to communities in need. Many CSAs and meal prep services also include options to donate boxes to local communities. Take some time to educate yourself on the options in your area, and get involved!
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