Countering childhood obesity with healthy habits

As Americans, we are proud to be first in so many things. Unfortunately, we are also first in something that shouldn’t make us proud—childhood obesity. In the United States, 17% of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese. An overweight child faces added health risks. Children and adolescents who are obese are more prone to high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea, as well as low self-esteem, depression and social discrimination.

Parents can help their kids create a lifetime of healthy eating and physical activity by being positive role models. If parents don’t exercise and eat healthy, how can anyone expect their children to lead a healthy lifestyle? At home, you can help your children by practicing these healthy eating habits:

  • Keep portion sizes healthy. Over the years, the idea of a healthy portion has ballooned! At home, try serving meals on smaller plates. Encourage your children to have a little bit of everything, and to make second servings smaller than first servings.
  • Create a balanced meal. Imagine the dinner plate divided in quarters. For lunch and dinner, your child’s plate should be one-half vegetables, one-fourth protein and one-fourth starch. Serve fruit for dessert.
  • Ensure variety. Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products. Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils, and beans for protein.
  • Decrease sweet beverages. Sodas and drinks containing fruit juice offer lots of calories and little nutritional value. They also can fill your child, who may then not want to eat a healthy meal.
  • Don’t use food as a reward. Avoid using food as a reward for a job well done. Instead, offer your kids a small prize, playing their favorite board game or going to their favorite park.
  • Don’t eat and watch TV. Turning off the television while eating is an important habit to instill in children. Studies show that food consumption increases while watching television.

When dining out, you and your children can make healthy choices:

  • Down-size your entrée. Share a main course with a family member, or choose an appetizer, broth-based soup or side dish instead of a main course.
  • Avoid buffets. Avoid situations where overeating can easily occur, such as buffets. When people go to “all you can eat buffets,” they tend to eat more than they should.
  • Make smart fast-food choices. Fast-food restaurants can be hard to avoid with our hectic schedules, but if you need to use one, help your child choose something that is grilled, steamed or baked instead of fried. Avoid pre-set meals that include fries and soda pop.

Finally, make exercise fun and frequent. Encourage your child to take part in team sports and individual pursuits such as biking or rock collecting. Instead of playing electronic games, get the family outside to walk to the library or to play a quick game of tag or jump-rope. Demonstrate healthy choices by parking the car far from a store’s door or taking the stairs instead of an elevator.

The overall goal for the treatment of childhood obesity should be to make exercise and healthy eating habits a permanent way of life. Obese children and adolescents are more likely to be obese as adults, so the sooner parents can instill routine exercise and healthy eating, the better. When making changes in the way your child eats and exercises, it is imperative to be supportive of them. Tell your child that he or she is important, special and loved. By making small changes every day, big changes will occur over time.