The Truth About Childhood Obesity — 5 Health Rules You Can Use

Obesity has become one of the most important public health problems in the United States, and childhood obesity is the No. 1 health concern of parents. Sadly, today one in three school-aged children (6-19 years) is overweight or obese (very overweight) and one in five preschool children (2-5 years) is overweight or obese.

Getting an early handle on unhealthy behaviors is crucial in helping our children avoid pain and suffering later. The best way to help our kids be healthy is to involve the entire family.

Our children don’t do what we tell them, they do what they see. So the health of our children starts with us, the parents.

As a physician I often hear that parents lack the time to take care of themselves because they put their family first. The reality is that having one obese parent increases the risk of childhood obesity by two to three times, and if both parents are obese, the risk of having an overweight child increases to 15 times.

The truth is that taking care of your health is taking care of your family, because having a healthy lifestyle increases the likelihood that your child will also enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Again, our kids don’t do what we tell them, they do what they see.

Consequences of Childhood Obesity

Besides destroying self-esteem, childhood obesity creates exposure to social discrimination and distorted body image along with a higher likelihood to be targeted by bullies or become bullies. Overweight children also have higher rates of anxiety and depression that often carry on into adulthood.

In addition to the emotional and social consequences, childhood obesity significantly increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, fatty liver, orthopedic complications, skin infections and increased intracranial hypertension (pseudotumor cerebri).

A 2003 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article reported that the quality of life among severely obese children and adolescents was similar to that reported by children and adolescents with cancer.

Our kids are suffering and they need us. We as parents need to step up.

Step 1

Understand that adult obesity is often determined before the age of 5. Doing something about a child’s health while they are young can make a huge difference for the rest of their lives, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Step 2

Find out if your child is unhealthy. Many parents don’t realize their kids are unhealthy. Many of us think our kids will just outgrow their poor eating habits or “chubby” stages. Unfortunately kids often don’t outgrow their unhealthy behaviors. In fact 50 – 80 percent of obese children become obese adults especially if one or both parents are obese. Again, a strong predictor for a healthy child is having a healthy parent.

Your health care team can tell you if your child is at an unhealthy weight and if so, we can help you and your child move toward a healthier life.

(To find out if your child may weigh too much for their height, you can calculate your child’s body mass index using this calculator for ages 2-19.)

Remember that our children are still growing, mentally, physically and spiritually. The emphasis should not be on promoting a healthy weight but rather promoting good health. Put the emphasis on good health, not calories, not weight.

So What Do We Do?

Rule No. 1 — Get rid of the sugar

I can’t say this enough. Get rid of the sugar. If you remember one thing from this article, it’s to get rid of the sugar.

  • 100% pure, no sugar added, freshly squeezed unpasteurized organic juice right off the farmer’s cart is pure sugar. That’s why they don’t need to add sugar to it. Saying “no added sugar” is hype. There is no healthy juice. Our kids don’t need it. You don’t need it. Just eat the fruit. If you want apple juice, just eat the apple. If you want orange juice, just eat the orange. Keep sugar in its natural form; just eat the fruit. If juice is to be given, it should be used as a treat and diluted. You can mix a sugar-free seltzer or club soda with a splash of juice to make it magical. Add a few raspberries or other berries on top. Presentation is everything.
  • As much as we don’t need juice, soda is even worse. Soda should not be conveniently obtained.
  • Our children should know that most of our planet’s population will never have access to the quality of water that we have. Teach our children to appreciate and enjoy water. Always have a pitcher of water available. Keep a used sports drink bottle and reuse it for water. While you’re at it, you can write “World’s Best Water” on the bottle, because it’s true.
  • If you want a “sports drink,” drink some water and eat a banana. You’re good.

Rule No. 2 — Eat real food

Recognize what real food looks like.

There’s a reason why chips and snack crackers don’t grow in our back yard. No matter what you’re told, it’s not real food. If it comes in a box with a barcode on it, it’s probably sugar or something that converts into sugar shortly after we eat it. Refer back to Rule No. 1.

Think of an ingredient list as someone trying to convince you that what you’re holding is food. There is no ingredient list on a bell pepper. Nobody has to explain an egg to you. We all know what a tomato is. Eat real food. Stop replenishing the things that are not real.

Change your family’s diet and eating patterns gradually. This is not a Monday morning project, this is a process. You’re working on progress, not perfection.

  • Cook and eat dinner at home most of the time. Restaurant/carry-out food is typically much higher in everything bad for you, and it costs more. I am certain you can put grilled chicken and pesto on a romaine lettuce leaf just as well as the local chain restaurant but at 1/10 of the cost. Let the kids stream some free smooth jazz in the background and you’ve got a vacation.
  • Involve the kids in shopping, preparing, cooking, and serving real food. Encourage them to prepare the menu for one night a week. These skills are priceless when they get older.
  • Again, get rid of manufactured snacks and breakfast cereals (food that comes in a box and has a barcode on it). Have containers of cut fruit, veggies, cheese, real peanut butter, nuts and low-sugar yogurt ready to grab in the fridge. For breakfast, serve hot whole grain oatmeal with fruit on top, eggs or real two-ingredient peanut butter (peanuts and salt).

Rule No. 3 — Limit screen time (TV, tablets, smartphones)

While kids watch screens, they’re bombarded with marketing messages about fake food that’s backed by food scientists whose job it is to create addiction by manipulating flavor. Most people don’t binge eat on apples because our body tells us when we’re done. Food and flavor science overrides that natural feedback with a sudden flavor explosion that fades quickly resulting in us reaching for the second cracker, chip or cookie before the first one is done. It’s a calculated addiction results in huge profits that aren’t found in real food. Because there is very little profit in produce, it’s hard to find a vegetable commercial. It’s important as parents that we point this out to our children.

If that’s not enough, even a television’s presence in a child’s bedroom has been shown to be directly related to obesity in children and adolescents. In addition, mounting evidence shows that prolonged TV watching is linked to weaker language skills and attention span.

Rule No. 4 — Play

Our children give us a second chance at childhood. We need to learn how to play. Take walks, ride your bike, dance, play tag football, wrestle together.

Remember night games? Put the work lights up, grab some glow sticks from the dollar store and get the neighborhood kids involved.

Find what your kids like doing and help them — support them: basketball, martial arts, swimming, gardening, climbing trees, air guitar to 80’s rock anthems (most quality air guitars are free if you know where to look)!

Our children need our full attention. Many of us spend most of our day apart from our kids, so when we do have limited time to spend together, we should be in the moment. We need to turn off our phones and learn to be with our kids so they actually feel as important as we know they are.

Rule No. 5 — Get rid of the sugar

It’s worth saying again. Sugar = obesity. I don’t want our kids fixating or even tracking calories or fats. The only time we should care about portions is when sugar is involved. Let them know they can eat as much real food as they want, it’s the sugar that hurts us. The only acceptable form of real sugar is when we eat the fruit or the vegetable, there is no other healthy sugar. It’s a very different way to approach weight because we are not talking about calories.

When we cut sugar out of our diet, everything else falls into place. We’re surrounded by sugar, so for most of us this is not an easy task. It needs to be done over time and in phases, but it is worth the effort.

Cutting back on sugar is the right thing to do, not only for ourselves but for our families.

Meet the Author

Hardeep S. Ahuja, MD is a Family Medicine physician at Aurora Advanced Healthcare in Menomonee Falls, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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