Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Understanding the Childhood Obesity Epidemic Part III: Small-Scale Solutions

Earlier this afternoon, CHG posted the wide-scale solutions to the childhood obesity epidemic. Now it’s time for the personal solutions – stuff you can do everyday to make sure kids are growing up healthy.

Also included are two things you absolutely shouldn’t do, because they need to be mentioned, too.


1) Walk the walk. Kids learn behavior from their parents. If mom and dad don’t eat healthy or exercise, their children won’t either. Or, as Time Magazine's Lori Oliwenstein puts it, “If your daily diet revolves around bologna, potato chips and Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream eaten straight out of the carton, guess what Junior's going to start craving? And if you can name every celebrity from the past five seasons of Dancing with the Stars, chances are your kid can too.” So get out there. Buy fresh foods. Educate yourself about healthy eating. Cook. Exercise (because, “If your children see that you are physically active and have fun, they are more likely to be active and stay active for the rest of their lives”). Mostly, SET A GOOD EXAMPLE.

2) Unplug the Xbox. One health agency claims that unless they’re sleeping, kids shouldn’t spend anymore than two sedentary hours per day. Between TV and video games, lots of American children surpass that easily, and it’s directly related to their weight gain. To ameliorate the situation, regulate kids’ screen hours. Remove TVs from their bedrooms. Offer them alternatives by planning something fun and physical in place of Halo 3. Speaking of…

3) Get moving. Exercise benefits kids in a ton of ways. Besides the obvious physical perks, Time says they “do better academically, have fewer disciplinary issues, maintain better medical history,” and most of all, “improve [their] overall sense of well-being.” So plan a day in the park, start a street hockey game, or go for a walk after dinner. Or, just read this article, which has ten great suggestions for getting a move on.

4) Eat together at home. This is difficult for most families, especially as kids get older and exponentially busier. But by-and-large, home-prepared meals have less calories and fat than those found at restaurants or snagged from a vending machine. What’s more, family meals are killer opportunities to communicate, connect, and teach (about food … and other stuff). And while we’re on it, lots of articles suggest packing school lunches from home and keeping healthy snacks handy for a grab-n-eat. And when you think about it? Makes sense.

5) Practice portion control. While it could ostensibly be grouped under numbers 1 or 4, portion control is important enough to merit its own special number 5. Why? Well, kids are learning from birth that super-sized servings are totally normal – that they can have a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream with no consequences. Sadly, that’s not the case, and it’s correlated to weight gain. If you’re unsure about correct portions yourself, here’s a great set of guidelines to get started.

6) Get kids involved in their food. When children (or anyone, really) have a stake in what they eat, they’re much more likely to make conscientious decisions about food. So take ‘em grocery shopping. Offer them choices. Teach them to cook. As Washington Post writer Sally Squires puts it, “By learning how to cook cheaply and healthfully, they can help fight the battle of the bulge -- and put great-tasting, healthful food on the table for the rest of their lives.” Or, more encouragingly, as one 15-year-old boy says, “If my mom had made paella, I don't know if I would have eaten it. But since I actually made it, I wanted to try it, and I liked it." That’s the spirit, kid.

7) Put ‘em to bed. Besides general lethargy, a lack of sleep causes children to “crave fatty, high-sugar foods.” For reference, this Web MD article shows how much snoozing time each age group should have per night.

8) Connect on a bigger level. Earlier today, Part II discussed the larger obesity initiatives taken by governmental, business, and philanthropic agencies. The best part about them? Is that YOU (yes, YOU) can influence their policy. One writer even suggests, “We need an uprising of concerned parents and other citizens to call their members of Congress. We need 50 states to mandate physical education in K-8 schools.” If that seems like a lot, engaging on a smaller level is great, too. As one NPR commentor says, “talk to your fellow parents about their ideas for healthy lunches and snacks.” Childhood obesity is a community issue, and your community can help.

9) Take baby steps. Gradual, small changes will most likely be more effective than sweeping, all-encompassing ones. One nutrition expert suggests, “look for ways to introduce more fruits, whole grains and veggies into these diets," while physiologist Shelly Sweeney says, “It's not like 'The Biggest Loser,' where you would lose 60 pounds. It's just, pick up a few of these tips, switch to skim milk and eat more colorful foods, and let's get outside and do a little bit more exercise." Good calls, both.

10) Talk to a doctor. Time Magazine says this best, so I’m going to leave it entirely to them: “The stickiness of the childhood-obesity problem begins with a simple truth: most of us just don't think our kids are fat. It's right there in the stats; one study found that only 36% of parents of overweight or obese children ages 2 to 17 identified them as such.” If you suspect your child might be heavier than he/she should be, it's important to consult a professional who'll set you on the right track.

As mentioned up top, there are two things you should never do to an overweight kid.

1) NEVER put a kid on a medically unsupervised diet. Not only does dieting fail children (“A success rate of 1 percent is the best medical professionals have seen.”), but it’s unsafe: “Children can suffer nutrient deficiencies, immune suppression and dangerous stress levels." If you have an overweight child, consult your doctor before enrolling them in any weight-loss programs.

2) NEVER make a kid feel bad about their weight. Why? Because it’s not the child’s fault. He/she IS A CHILD. And that child is subjected to more judgment and stupid remarks in a given day than anyone should be. Instead, if you want to make a positive impact:

And that, fair readers, concludes this very special three-part series on Understanding the Childhood Obesity Epidemic. I would love to read questions, comments, and suggestions (especially in the solutions category), so fire away.

Oh yeah – and here are my sources for Parts II and III:


10 Tips To Get Your Kids Moving (Time, 6/08)
Baby Fat (New York Magazine, 2/04)
Childhood Obesity (USA Today, 1/06)
Facts You Should Know (Washington Post, 5/08)
Fit at Any Size (Time, 6/08)
Healthy Home Ec (Washington Post, 5/08)
Kids: Watching What They Eat (Time, 6/08)
A One-Eyed Invader in the Bedroom (New York Times, 3/08)
The Search for Solutions (Washington Post, 5/08)
The Threat From Within (Newsweek, 1/07)
Two Worlds, One Problem (Washington Post, 5/08)
Weight Problems and Children (NY Times)
Weighty Issues for Parents (Time, 6/08)
Your Questions on Kids and Obesity (NPR, 11/06)

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members Sean dreilinger, novamade, and luluphotography2007.)


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