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Obesity Now Affects Children Earlier in Life

Childhood obesity is considered a growing and serious health issue in the United States. Recent studies have shown the percentage of obese children and teens is not only rising, but obesity is affecting kids earlier in their lives than ever before. Being overweight can not only affect a child’s physical and emotional health, but it can have long-lasting effects into adulthood.

A growing problem

A three-year study ending in 2020 showed nearly 20% of children ages two to 19 could be characterized as obese – that’s about 14.7 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity is more prevalent among certain racial groups in the U.S., including Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black children. It also differs by age group. Here’s the obesity breakdown by age: 

  • 22.2%: Ages 12 to 19
  • 20.7%: Ages 6 to 11
  • 12.7%: Ages 2 to 5

Obesity is occurring earlier

A study published in the journal Pediatrics showed obesity is a rising epidemic, despite a myriad of public health campaigns developed to prevent issues associated with childhood weight gain. 

The study found that childhood obesity cases are increasing in elementary school-aged children and occurring at younger ages than a decade ago. Researchers also found: 

  • 40% of high school students had been overweight before leaving elementary school
  • Children born in the 2000 decade had higher rates of obesity – and were obese at younger ages – than children surveyed 10 years earlier
  • The risk of becoming obese increased 15% for children living in economically disadvantaged households

How to have healthy conversations with children

This rise in childhood obesity makes it especially important for parents and caregivers to talk to kids and teens about how to make healthy lifestyle choices. Children’s self-esteem can be fragile at this age, so conversations should be framed as healthy, not harmful. Some topics to focus on:

  • Body positivity: Parents should show respect for their own bodies and their children’s bodies, no matter what shape or size they are. When parents run down their own appearance, children learn to attach self-esteem – or a lack of it – to those statements. Talk about health being more important than numbers on a scale.
  • Choosing healthy foods: Explain to teens who are interested in sports how a healthy amount of protein and good fats can help them perform better. If young children have a favorite superhero character, frame healthy eating as a fun way to grow up to be strong.
  • Talking about weight: Frame conversations about weight in terms children can understand, depending on their age.

Build a healthy environment for children surrounding food

Here are some tips for creating a healthy space for kids and teens to understand food choices:

  • Allow children to choose between healthy options; this gives them a sense of control.
  • Be a role model for a healthy eating lifestyle.
  • Children are born with the ability to stop eating when they’re full. Pressuring them to clean their plates when they’re full can lead to unhealthy eating habits.
  • Don’t imply that a child must “earn” food by exercising.
  • Don’t use the word “diet” when speaking to children about food, put the focus on healthy habits.
  • Early childhood is an impressionable age for developing food habits that can affect adulthood.

Helping children make healthier choices can start with small actions, like swapping out a highly processed snack for a healthier option. Try creating a space in the pantry or refrigerator full of healthy options for them to pick from. At mealtimes, offer a fruit and vegetable along with the main course, so children are exposed to these nutrient-dense foods and can try them at their own pace. 

Consider how the behaviors of parents, older siblings, caregivers and other family members play a part in how children view food and themselves. Empower children with the knowledge they need to make healthier choices for themselves and respond to their body’s needs.  

Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan based in Detroit. Passionate about the science of nutrition and behavior, Shanthi has experience working in clinical nutrition, public health and teaching in the university setting. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, exploring the outdoors, working on art and spending time with family. For more health tips and information, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.

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