Did you know that in the past 30 years, the number of overweight children in the U.S. has tripled? Alarmingly, it is now estimated that 1 in 5 children is overweight (18.5%). With these numbers, it’s no surprise that childhood obesity is something we encounter a lot here at Westchester Health. However, we firmly believe (and we’ve seen results proving this theory) that with a concerted effort from many people in a child’s life, overweight kids can achieve a healthier lifestyle and reduce their weight. To shed important light on the subject, Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician with our Westchester Health Pediatrics group, has written a great blog which we excerpt here.
Why are there so many overweight and obese children in the U.S.? Many reasons.
Unfortunately, the majority of American children are not eating enough nutritious foods or getting sufficient physical activity. Many children have limited access to safe places to play, while others live in “food deserts” where there are few neighborhood places nearby for their parents to buy affordable, healthy food. Studies show that the odds of a child being obese or overweight increase by 20-60% when they live in poor housing, unsafe surroundings and/or limited access to sidewalks, parks and recreation centers. Contributing factors:
- 91% of American children have poor diets
- Less than half get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity
- Almost two-thirds of American youth consume a sugary beverage daily
- 25% of American high school students spend 3 or more hours a day staring at a screen
- Schools have reduced recess time in favor of academic instruction, particularly among older children
Several factors contribute to childhood obesity
- Unhealthy food choices: Diets high in calories (including fats and simple sugars) and lower in fruits and vegetables
- Lack of physical activity: Too much time spent in sedentary activities such as watching TV, video games and/or on phones
- Obese parents: Children of obese parents are more likely to be overweight themselves.
- Eating patterns: Skipping meals or not having a regular eating schedule can result in eating too much at one time.
- Parenting style: Overprotective parents regarding their children’s eating can cause those children to have poor self-regulation regarding food.
- Diabetes during pregnancy: Overweight and type 2 diabetes occur with greater frequency in the offspring of diabetic mothers (who are also more likely to be obese themselves).
- Low birth weight: A risk factor for being overweight in several studies.
- Excessive weight gain during pregnancy: Excessive maternal weight gain during pregnancy is associated with increased birth weight and being overweight later in life.
- Formula feeding: Breastfeeding is generally recommended vs. formula feeding, and studies suggest that it may also prevent excess weight gain as children grow.
- Parental eating and physical activity habits: Parents with poor nutritional habits and sedentary lifestyles model these unhealthy behaviors for their children, who often copy them in their own choices.
- Demographic factors: Certain demographic factors are associated with an increased risk of being overweight in childhood. For example, statistics show that African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander children are more likely to be overweight.
In spite of the statistics, childhood obesity can be reversed with healthy eating and exercise
Fortunately, healthy habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can be taught—and when put into practice, can change a child’s life, both physically and mentally.
- Schools play a critical role in influencing a child’s weight by establishing a safe and supportive environment that supports healthy behaviors. They also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity (the dreaded gym class!).
- Your child’s pediatrician also plays a vital role in helping your child reach and maintain a healthy weight. He/she can explain the health risks and benefits of a healthy and physically active lifestyle, create a customized diet and exercise plan, and encourage your child when he/she is struggling. Also, with regular checkups, your child’s doctor is more likely to notice changes in your child’s weight, both positive and negative, and can respond quickly to issues.
- Parents probably have the most influence on a child’s eating and exercise habits. They can make sure there are healthy foods available at home, consult a nutritionist for meal guidelines, take their child to the gym with them, and be a cheerleader or a drill sergeant, whichever is needed.
What you can do to fight childhood obesity
From our years of experience here at Westchester Health, here are our tips that have proven to be most effective:
- Serve and eat a variety of foods from each food group.
- Serve small portions. Compared to adult portions, child portions should be very small. More food can always be added if needed.
- Bake, broil, roast or grill meats instead of frying them.
- Limit use of high calorie, high fat and high sugar sauces and spreads.
- Use low-fat or nonfat dairy products for milk, yogurt and ice cream.
- Encourage participation in sports and other physical activity at school, church or community leagues.
- Be active as a family: go on walks, bike rides or hikes together.
- Limit screen time.
- Avoid eating while watching TV. TV viewers typically eat too much, too fast, and are influenced by the foods and drinks that are advertised.
- Replace sugary drinks, especially sodas, with water and/or low fat milk.
- Limit fruit juice intake to two servings or less per day (one serving = ¾ cup). Many parents allow their children unlimited intake of fruit juice because of the vitamins and minerals it contains. However, children who drink too much fruit juice may be consuming excess calories.
- Encourage physical play in young children and provide environments that allow children to play indoors and outdoors.
- Model healthy dietary practices, nutritional snacks and lifestyle activities.
- Avoid using food as a reward for good behavior or good grades.
Concerned that your child is overweight or obese? Please come see us
If you are worried about your child’s weight and the effect this is having on his/her health, please make an appointment with Westchester Health to come in and talk to one of our pediatricians. We will meet with you and your child, assess their weight and overall health, and together with you, decide on the best course of action to steer him/her toward a healthier lifestyle and weight. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
To read Dr. Adler’s blog in full, click here.