In the United States, more than 14 million children and adolescents have obesity—and the stakes for obese kids are high. Beyond vanity and social anxiety, being overweight or obese during childhood increases the risk of developing long-term complications that can impact someone's health for a lifetime. If left untreated, obesity can lead to high cholesterol, diabetes and joint issues—to name a few complications.
We used to think kids would “outgrow” obesity. We now know that isn’t true. Unless significant changes occur, it usually worsens over time. We also know that a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle aren’t the only factors that contribute to obesity. Many other factors, such as genetics and someone’s environment, also play a role.
Take your child to the pediatrician for yearly checkups—you’ll be able to keep track of their body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure. Your pediatrician can also recommend bloodwork that can help you better understand your child’s risks. They can refer you to dietitians and community programs that will help you support a healthy lifestyle.
Forming Healthy Habits
But even before you see your child’s doctor, you can make these changes at home:
1. Be a good role model. Kids imitate their parents — even unknowingly. So if you’re mindlessly nibbling on chips while watching TV or digging into a pint of ice cream after a tough day, you can expect your kids to do the same. Similarly, if you hit the gym when you’re stressed or snack on carrots while preparing dinner, your kids will likely follow suit.
2. Practice moderation. Sweet treats on special occasions are fine, but making dessert a daily habit can set your child up for weight issues down the road. Change the culture of your home to support better dietary choices. Want a treat? Serve your child a bowl of berries with a dollop of cream or share a bowl of sorbet.
3. Limit device use. Devices not only prevent kids from exercising and getting outside, they’re also linked to stress and depression — and both emotional states can lead to increased food cravings and overeating. Plus, when kids are on devices, they often engage in mindless eating.
4. Clean up your kitchen. Stock your pantry with healthy snacks. Wash and cut vegetables so they’re ready to eat and store them at the front of the refrigerator. That way, when your kids are hungry, they’ll see those snacks first.
5. Plan ahead. With today’s busy schedules, a lot of families rely on takeout and fast food. If you plan ahead, you may be able to limit fast food outings to one day a week. Or you can just buy prepared side dishes for meals. Better yet, get acquainted with your instant pot or slow cooker—you can prepare meals in the morning so they’ll be ready by dinnertime.
6. Eat smaller portions. Portion sizes, especially for kids, are much larger than they should be. So even if you’re trying to make healthy meals, your kids may be overeating. Downsize your dinner plates and if kids want seconds, focus on vegetables first.
7. Get creative. Think about exercise and food in less conventional ways. For example, instead of always cutting up apples after school, let your kids pick a new fruit each week to try. And don’t limit exercise to sports or the gym. Park far away from the grocery store, shoot hoops in the backyard, or play freeze dance, where you put on music and everyone dances, and then you pause the music and everyone has to freeze. If they move after the music stops, they’re out!
Look At The Big Picture
Make sure you know your child’s height, weight and body mass index. If your child falls in the overweight or obese range, don’t blow it off. While some kids may have a larger frame, and exercise does help, there is often more to the story. A better approach: Talk to your doctor about additional testing.
It’s important to know whether your child is at risk for developing heart issues or diabetes. Then, instead of trying to overhaul your world in one shot, choose one or two areas to focus on. Approaching big change that way is not only less overwhelming, it is also more sustainable.
Some key benchmarks to strive for: five fruits and vegetables daily, less than two hours of recreational screen time, one hour of physical activity and zero sugar-sweetened drinks.
Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center in midtown Detroit and Sterling Heights. Read more of Dr. Leatherwood Cannon's articles.