It is estimated that at least 2 out of every 3 kindergarten aged children in the United States are obese. Childhood obesity statistics are alarming; they show that nearly 1 out of every 6 kids in the US is more than or equal to the 95th percentile for weight. Unfortunately, this data is not limited to higher socio economic classes but are true across all sectors irrespective of race, education levels or income groups. Let us study things parents as well as the entire society can do to prevent childhood obesity.
1. Understand nutrition
The first step necessary to combat obesity in children and adults is to understand what we put in our mouths and in our bodies. At the simplest level, parents need to get educated about different food groups and ensure that their kids are eating healthy without having to think much about it. Every child needs food that helps provide energy, encourages healthy bowel movement, and promotes healthy chemical reactions at the cellular level. Speak to the family doctor about the right diet for you and your kids.
2. Not all carbs are the enemy
These days, many diets promote high protein and low carbohydrate meals. However, experts like Henry Legere, author of Raising Healthy Eaters, firmly believe that too much protein eventually has long term ill effects on the heart. He recommends healthy carbs like whole wheat bread, pasta and cereals over white and processed carbs for the entire family.
3. Choose plant based protein sources
The American Heart Association states that plant based protein foods help lower bad cholesterol and could be better alternatives to red meat. Foods like brown rice and beans not only provide good quantity of protein; they are also rich in amino acids, vitamins, and minerals like iron. Beans also provide us with tons of fiber, B vitamins and calcium and are affordable and delicious. They could be one of the solutions to childhood obesity. The key is moderation: provide variety and moderation to your child so they can obtain benefits of both meat and non meat sources.
4. Provide healthy snacks
When choosing snacks for kids, avoid hydrogenated fats found in cookies, crackers and baked goods. Trans fats are especially bad as they increase heart disease associated with increase in bad cholesterol. Fruits, vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and seeds are healthier snack options.
5. Know the food pyramid
There are many simple ways to prevent childhood obesity in schools. Students can learn about the food guidelines given by the US Department of Agriculture and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- 6 servings from whole grain groups per day
- 3-5 servings of vegetables per day and at least 2-3 servings of fruit per day ((Note that one can also extend the number of fruit and vegetable servings from 5 per day to 10 per day.)
- 2 servings of lean meat per day
- 2 servings of dairy per day
Parents and school food services must practice these guidelines. Adults must eat healthy to set healthy examples to children. Parents must ensure that their child limits intake of foods like ice cream, cookies and crackers. Schools can do their bit by providing childhood obesity handouts to parents.
6. Increase fiber intake
Fiber is like the broom for the GI tract; it sweeps out clogged up waste in the intestines. Typically, American diets only consist of 5-10 grams of fiber per day. However, the FDA recommends a dietary intake of at least 20-35 grams of fiber per day. High fiber diets are not only solutions to childhood obesity; they are also important for preventing hemorrhoids, anal fissures, diverticular disease as well as risk of certain cancers in adulthood. Do not suddenly increase fiber- this could lead to bloating and gas. Instead, increase fiber intake in small steps and encourage the child to drink plenty of water.
7. Give certain supplements
Growing kids need adequate amount of calcium, iron and other minerals. Unfortunately, as per the USDA, less than 35% boys and 15% girls get the RDA or recommended daily allowance of calcium. Teenagers need at least 1200-1500 mg of calcium per day. If your kids are not eating yogurt or drinking milk daily, then speak to your doctor about supplements. Also, if your kids aren’t eating lean meat, beans, fortified cereals, eggs, green leafy vegetables, whole grains and brewer’s yeast, then you must make sure to give them iron, B complex or multivitamin supplements. These are essential to prevent the medical reasons for overweight children.
8. Stock your pantry wisely
Parents often unknowingly encourage unhealthy habits in their children by stocking the refrigerator with sodas, caffeinated beverages, sugary energy drinks etc. Instead, choose fresh fruit juice, skim or low-fat milk as well as fruit infused water or plain water. Parents can encourage older kids to go for healthy alternatives like herbal teas or decaf espresso drinks when outside.
9. Learn to read food labels
This is one of the most important solutions to solve child obesity. Many packaged foods are filled with hidden sugar sources. Even the so called healthy, flavored yogurts are filled with sugars to enhance their taste. So learn to read food labels and do encourage your children to do so as well. Avoid buying sugary cereals; instead sweeten it up with dried or fresh fruit, molasses etc. Keep nuts and low-carb energy bars on hand for snacking. Stay away from juices labeled as “100% fruit juice”, “from concentrate” or “100% natural”. Instead, make your own fresh fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies at home.
10. Limit screen time
Encourage your children to go outdoors and play daily for an hour. Running, swimming and cycling increase metabolic activity and can be a proven solution to solve child obesity. Set a positive example by being active yourself. Nurseries and kindergartens can encourage physical activity for at least 1 hour per day. Schools represent a unique opportunity for childhood obesity prevention and must take care not to promote sedentary habits during growing years.
All in all, the key to preventing childhood obesity needs a coherent and comprehensive approach. Schools, parents, nursery or kindergarten staff, food services and the government should all promote active living and healthy diets to make this project successful.