Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since the 1970’s. According to the Centers for Disease Control, recent data shows nearly one in five American children, ages 6 – 19, is obese.
Healthy weight and obesity are difficult topics to discuss because they represent more than just a number. Parents and kids may feel confused with the misinformation in the media about what is considered healthy in terms of weight.
But there is good news! Today there are plenty of resources available to help. Restaurants now serve healthy alternatives, more attention is being paid to the importance of physical activity and kids are being empowered to make healthy choices. At Greater Roslindale Medical and Dental Center, it is our goal to improve the health of our patients and community. This includes encouraging healthy active bodies and minds. We believe in partnering with our patients and families to incorporate positive and healthy changes. When it comes to the health of your child, there is much we can accomplish together.
Defining Childhood Obesity
Like adults, children have different body shapes and can carry weight differently. The same number on a scale can look very different on different people. Additionally, children carry different amounts of body fat at various stages of development. Doctors use the body mass index (BMI) for children and teens to calculate a healthy weight for a child, taking into account different growth patterns for age and gender. While BMI is not a direct measurement of fat, it is an effective way to screen for potential weight issues that may lead to health problems.
When a child’s BMI exceeds the number acceptable for their stage, age, height, and activity level, it can begin to negatively affect their health. We know habits that begin in children’s early years can last a lifetime. Therefore, it is important to identify a child’s risk factors and work to set them on a path for future success.
Causes and Risk Factors
The most common causes of obesity are lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating habits, limited access to healthy food, genetic predisposition or a combination of these factors. Further, there are certain medical conditions that can attribute. More than cute ‘baby fat’, extra weight can lead to health problems such as high cholesterol, early heart disease, diabetes, skin conditions, and more. According to the American Heart Association, maintaining a healthy weight during childhood is important for heart health. Additionally, mental health issues can arise, such as low self-esteem, depression, and behavior and learning problems.
“There is a stigma with many children dealing with obesity. As a child it can be devastating and demoralizing,” says Gina Collins, GRMDC Pediatric RN.
Positive Steps To Help Your Child
First and foremost, schedule a check-up with your family practitioner to discuss any concerns you have. Your child’s school can be involved, too. Parents, physicians, and nurses should work in partnership with your child’s school nurses. If you and your doctor have concerns about your child’s weight, stay positive. “A positive attitude is important,” Collins says. Approach weight loss as a healthy step in the right direction and a work in progress.
Children crave responsibility. One way to get them involved and excited is to show them healthy options and teach them to prepare their own food.
When incorporating extra physical activity or adding an exercise program, ask your child what excites them. “Walking is always my first choice, it is low impact, can be done alone or with others, is cost effective and you can play fun games as you walk, like ‘I Spy’ or ‘how has the neighborhood changed,” says Collins. Perhaps your child wants to play at school or participate in a recreational sport, you can explore the many options. GRMDC Pediatrician Janet Protiva, MD, suggests 30 minutes of activity a day five days a week. And don’t underestimate the power of playing together. Family games and activities such as kickball, jumping rope, bike rides, and basketball (to name just a few) can not only keep you and your child active, but provide valuable time together.
Exercise doesn’t have to be boring like running on a treadmill or lifting weights, you can get physical activity through a variety of things, like dancing, jumping rope, or walking your dog.” – GRMDC Pediatrician, Natalie Gilman, MD.
There are simple daily changes you can make that have a big impact. “Healthy hydration is important! Drink plenty of water, limit milk to two to three cups a day and remove juices and soda from their diet,” Dr. Protiva says.
When it comes to food, incorporate new foods often. “Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and encourage your child to try new healthy foods,” Dr. Protiva adds. Dr. Gilman suggests getting creative when adding healthy swaps, saying, "Instead of reaching for a glass of juice or soda, try putting fresh fruit in your water like pieces of strawberry or mango to add some flavor without the extra sugar."
And don’t skip breakfast! Paul Ahn, MD, GRMDC Pediatrician and father of two young boys, expresses the importance of a healthy start to your child’s day. Dr. Ahn understands that kids can be picky eaters and has learned in his years of practice that introducing a variety of foods is essential to expanding you child’s palate.
Both Drs. Ahn and Protiva agree that family dinners are important and encourage eating as many meals together, uninterrupted, without media distractions. The American Heart Association also recommends family dinnertimes. “When everyone sits down together to eat, there’s less chance of children eating the wrong foods, or snacking too much.” When children are involved in cooking and planning meals, positive eating habits are formed, and you get the added bonus of extra quality family time!
Dr. Ahn recommends five simple steps to getting your child on a healthy path:
- Don't skip breakfast.
- Keep healthy snacks on hand.
- Watch portion sizes.
- Eat as a family.
- Keep family meals media-free.
With simple changes in your family’s routine and by adding new and healthy options often, you can set your child up for success and a healthy future. The healthy habits you instill in your child early in life will have lifelong positive benefits.