One of the most common chronic illnesses amongst children is obesity – affecting more than 14.4 million children in the U.S. Rates of childhood obesity have risen in recent decades and are partially linked to an increase in consumption of highly processed low-nutrition foods and sugary drinks. Less physical activity, partially due to increased use of technology, has also played a significant role. Yet obesity is also linked to deeper, more complex health factors – including genetics, socioeconomics and environmental influences.
Obesity is defined by a body mass index, or BMI, at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex. The BMI is a comparison of a person’s weight to their height.
While BMI doesn’t paint a complete picture of a child’s or individual’s health, it does carry some statistical impacts. For children, obesity puts them at an increased risk of other chronic illnesses that can affect their long-term health and well-being – including heart disease, depression and diabetes. More than 210,000 children and adolescents under the age of 20 have diabetes – a number that is projected to increase in the coming decades.
Experts agree: early interventions are the best tool to help children and teens live their best lives. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first comprehensive guidelines on evaluating and treating children and adolescents with obesity – signaling the urgency and importance of this issue to children’s health.
Working with a doctor
If there are concerns about a child’s weight, talk to their doctor about their overall health. Diagnosing obesity in children is a more complicated issue than diagnosing obesity in adults.
Doctors may or may not recommend some treatment goals depending on the individual child or teen, which could begin with addressing nutrition and exercise. For younger children, early goals are often weight maintenance. As they grow and get taller, any rapid weight loss could impact a child’s metabolism in a negative way. Additionally, doctors must watch for signs of a feeding and eating disorder that could stem from an obesity diagnosis in a child or teen with a mental health issue.
Teaching and implementing healthy behaviors at school may hold promise in helping reduce obesity rates in children. A recent national study of 14,000 schoolchildren ages 5 to 18 found their BMIs improved following the implementation of a federal program aimed at improving the nutrition of school lunches.
During mealtimes at school, students need adequate time to eat, and school meal programs need to offer foods that meet national nutrition standards. Schools can incorporate nutrition education into meal programs.
Other school-based initiatives that teach healthy habits and promote physical activity can have an impact on students’ day-to-day behaviors.
Healthy behaviors start at home
Helping children create a healthy relationship with food and physical activity can start at home. Here are some tips for families to implement with food:
- Keep mealtimes regular. Without a consistent schedule, children may adopt habits like grazing or snacking. Consistency helps children manage their hunger. Eating meals together can help children learn healthy behaviors from adults.
- Don’t skip breakfast. Children’s growing bodies need food in the morning to help them grow and develop. Breakfasts don’t have to be complicated – they can be simple and quick.
- Offer a variety. Keep exposing children to foods when they’re young, even if they don’t touch something or push it aside.
- Model behavior. Parents need to adopt a healthy relationship with food if they want the same for their children.
- Snack wisely. While children are notorious for enjoying snacks, make sure they’re not eating simply out of boredom. Offer healthy snacks at certain times of the day, and then try and fill the rest of the time with other activities.
- Indulgences are OK in moderation. Kids don’t have to say goodbye to ice cream and French fries to be healthy, but it’s important to eat them in moderate portions and balance these foods with nutritious meals throughout the day.
- Don’t use food as a reward or punishment. Similarly, don’t use exercise as punishment.
Physical activity is just as important for children to stay healthy as it is for adults – and kids need even more activity than adults do. The World Health Organization recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day for children. Here are some tips to get moving:
- Make physical activity a fun part of the daily routine – like taking walks together, bicycling, playing active games together or dancing.
- Offer free play time with toys or equipment that encourages movement – like bicycles, scooters, roller skates, basketballs, etc.
- Visit spaces designed for movement and play – like public parks and playgrounds, baseball fields, swimming pools or basketball courts.
- Engage friends. For older children, social interaction during physical activity may make them more interested in engaging.
- Start early. Young children love to move. Find activities they love and encourage them to try new things to expand their horizons.
Helping children create healthy habits at home and at school can set them up for lifelong success.
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 recipes and health information, visit ahealthiermichigan.org.
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