Closing the door on childhood obesity

The rate of childhood obesity is alarmingly high—so high that First Lady Michelle Obama has adopted it as her signature issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity now affects 17% of all U.S. children and adolescents. A child who is overweight is at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea, joint issues and social issues. Finally children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults. Luckily, attentive, concerned parents can make a big difference in their families. A little knowledge and some practical lifestyle tips are a good place to start.

First, the facts. People gain weight when they take in more calories than their bodies expend. With children, “empty calories”—those gained through foods with little nutritional value—are often a major culprit. Think potato chips, fast-food burgers and fries, calorie-dense protein bars, sugary drinks and desserts. In addition, portion sizes at restaurants have increased greatly over the last decade. On the expenditure side of the equation, many children simply aren’t moving enough. One issue is the hours passed sitting before a TV, video game or computer. The Mayo Clinic suggests that a child who spends more than 2 hours a day watching TV is likely to be overweight.

The solutions for turning around our epidemic of childhood obesity lie in consuming smaller portions of nutritious food and exercising regularly.

Parents, of course, have an enormously important role in how their children approach eating and exercising. By making healthy snacks available, providing nutritious meals and modeling an active lifestyle, parents can instill in their children positive habits that can last a lifetime.

Bumping Up the Exercise Factor
By natural design, children in good health love to move, and they will wiggle and squirm, run and jump all day long! If physical activity has fallen to the wayside, you can bring it back. Here are some easy ideas.

  • Weave activity into your daily routines.Choose toys that require motion, such as a Frisbee or soccer ball. Park far from the entrance to stores or choose a family night at the bowling alley instead of at the movies. With older children, get them involved in a team sport like volley ball or an individual one like diving or a martial art. On weekends, get the whole family out to explore a nearby park or nature preserve, pick up some badminton equipment or rent bikes for an afternoon.
  • Start with a nutritious breakfast. Choosing a nutritious, kid-friendly breakfast is relatively easy. Focus on whole grains, healthy sources of protein and fresh fruit. Look for cereals and breads that say “whole grain” on the package. Choose cereals that are high in fiber and low in sugar (check the Nutrition Facts label). Make hot cereals appealing to young eaters by adding a small teaspoon of brown sugar to the bottom of the bowl and topping it with frozen blueberries. Other good options are yogurt, fresh fruit and nuts.
  • Eat at home more often. Limit dining out to once a week. When you do eat out, keep some control over the menu, helping your child choose a meal that’s low in fat and a healthy, small portion. For home cooking, plan a meal or two in advance and make extra so that tomorrow’s dinner is ready to go. Keep cooking simple and focus on basics: a lean protein (like pan-fried boneless chicken or beans), two vegetables (raw or cooked), and a grain (such as corn bread, brown rice, pasta). Offer fresh fruit and a single cookie for dessert. Only allow water or milk with dinner to cut down on sugary drinks.

You can learn more about exercise and nutrition online. Two excellent sources of practical information are and

Incorporating changes to your family’s diet and exercise habits is a good first step. Equally valuable—particularly if a child in your family is already overweight or obese—is to work closely with your child’s doct