Obesity in childhood isn’t just a childhood issue. Even as reports of bullying and “fat shaming” among younger children continue to grow, more serious consequences of childhood obesity often remain hidden. Obese children with high blood pressure tend to carry this with them into adulthood, a trend that can produce a number of negative health possibilities. There is some evidence that obese children who become obese adults have a more difficult time losing weight and maintaining a healthy body weight than those people who gain (and lose) weight as adults. Another study found that severely obese children can have heart disease as early as age two, getting more serious as they grow up.
But now for the good news.
The issue of childhood obesity is being addressed all across the country. From participating in Head Start programs that result in healthier habits to using attention modification programs to help kids stop overeating, researchers and organizations all across the country are working together to find the best ways to address (and prevent) childhood obesity. Here are the ways you can help in your own home.
Practice what you preach
If you are telling your children that junk food is terrible and unhealthy as you are working your way through a soda and a bag of Hot Cheetos, chances are excellent that they will not listen to a word you have to say. Model healthy eating and activity patterns. If you are carrying some extra weight yourself, show them how you are working to eat better and exercise more. In this case, as in most, actions speak much louder than words.
Don’t keep junk in the house
Kids can’t eat what’s not there. If your pantry is filled with chips, candy, soda, and processed foods, that’s what kids will reach for. Studies show that kids will eat whole grains if that’s what’s offered, so swap out your white rice for brown, white bread for wheat, and sugary cereal for oatmeal.
Keep plenty of healthy snacks on hand, such as:
- Fruit, both fresh and dried
- Nuts, including the occasional sweet variety, such as cocoa-dusted almonds
- Whole-grain crackers and cheese
- Cut veggies, like carrots, celery (fill with peanut butter), and snap peas
- Popcorn (unflavored and unsalted. Season with nutritional yeast or sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese)
- Homemade fruit roll-ups (use very little sugar and choose seasonal, organic fruit)
Part of combating obesity is changing habits. Teach your kids to reach for healthy snacks by making sure you have plenty on hand.
Drink more water
Speaking of snacks, when we snack we are not always hungry. Sometimes we are just bored, and sometimes we are thirsty. Help your kids stay hydrated by encouraging them to drink a full glass of water with each snack or meal. If your kids reach for snacks mindlessly when their body sends them any signal whatsoever, teach them to drink a glass of water first, wait a few minutes, and then, if they are still hungry, grab something to eat.
Take your kids shopping with you
Many kids have no idea how to shop. While this is understandable for very young children, as kids grow up they need to learn how grocery stores are organized so they can shop efficiently and in a healthier manner. Use online tools to help plan healthy meals, then head to the grocery store with your kids. If you are a foodie and live in an area with an abundance of farmer’s markets, reverse this process by heading to the market to see what’s fresh and in season, planning meals around that. Either system works because it is helping your kids to understand how to shop and how to plan meals for themselves.
If you are not comfortable teaching your kids how to shop well because you are just learning yourself, take some time before you shop to read up on how to shop healthy, even on a budget. You don’t have to be an expert, and you certainly don’t have to be perfect. You just have to start somewhere!
Prepare (and eat) most meals together
After you get home from the market, don’t let the education end there. Take the time to prepare meals together, teaching your kids how to incorporate fresh ingredients and season foods with herbs and spices instead of salt. A kid who is confident in the kitchen is less likely to fall back on pre-packaged, processed food and more likely to have at least a few healthy staple dishes they can make as they grow older. If you are uncertain in the kitchen, make it a family project to learn to cook. The Kitchn offers a free, 20-lesson online cooking school that teaches procedures with tutorials and delicious “homework.” All lessons are available online for the price of an email address. You can incorporate these lessons into weekly meal planning.
Bonus: teaching your kids how to cook can result in some spectacular Mother’s or Father’s Day breakfasts-in-bed.
Allow room for treats
There is room in healthy eating for treats. Dessert is not inherently bad for you. The key here is moderation and portion size. A slice of cake should not be as big as your head, and it should not happen every day. Teach your kids that dessert can be a fresh, juicy peach or a handful of sweet cherries, too. If you do incorporate other types of dessert, make it yourself instead of buying it ready-made. This way you control the sugar and you can use the best ingredients (e.g., antioxidant-rich dark chocolate instead of the more nutritionally flabby milk chocolate). Branch out and try kid-friendly but still healthy desserts like strawberry banana cream poppers or fresh fruit or small pieces of homemade cake in a sweet yogurt dipping sauce.
Break a sweat every day
A healthy eating habit that has nothing to do with healthy eating is movement. The recommended amount of daily exercise for kids is 60 minutes, but chances are good they are not getting it. Chances are good you aren’t squeezing in your 45 minutes a day either. Combine the two and help kids develop the habit of movement in their day by breaking a sweat doing something every day. This can be walking the dog, playing catch, running an obstacle course: anything that gets your heart beating fast enough to break a sweat. Sitting is an epidemic, and movement is the cure. If your kids have time to watch TV, they have time to exercise. On bad-weather days find a dance tutorial on YouTube and learn hip hop (laughter is also good medicine) or use Dance, Dance Revolution or the Wii Sports games to have fun while you exercise.
Plant a garden
One of the most powerful things you can do to help your kids develop healthy eating habits that they will carry into adulthood is to teach them where their food comes from. You don’t need a large piece of land to plant a garden. Even pots on a fire escape will work, and many vegetables come in smaller varieties especially developed for container gardening. Take your kids with you to the local nursery and pick out some vegetables to grow. You can even start them indoors from seed in the coldest winter months and then move them outside as the weather grows warmer.
The goal here is twofold. First, kids are more likely to eat what they have grown themselves, and second, it is important to understand what it takes to grow and harvest the food you eat. This makes kids more educated shoppers as they grow up and more inclined to appreciate the labors of the farm.
Helping your kids develop healthy eating habits can mean making a few changes; what changes have you made?
Image by Coqui the Chef via Flickr