September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Despite the volume of media coverage on the topic in recent years, we have a long way to go in terms of awareness. Let’s start with a few basic stats.
One in three American kids is overweight or obese. While many people might think that these kids will simply “grow out of it” and that they are too young to face the health risks of excess weight, the fact is that about half of overweight or obese kids go on to become overweight or obese adults. Moreover, kids are increasingly being diagnosed with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. Overweight or obese kids are also at increased risk of depression, lower school achievement, low self-esteem, and being bullied and teased. Obesity 101 covers the consequences (and causes) of childhood obesity in more detail.
One of the first major hurdles in bringing awareness to the issue of childhood obesity is that more than half of parents fail to correctly identify their child as overweight or obese. Taken further, up to 80% of parents have never been told by a pediatrician that their child is overweight or obese. This lack of awareness represents a huge missed opportunity to get kids on a healthier track. Investing in prevention could spare our kids from having to endure all of the social stigma and physical health problems that are associated with excess weight. So the first step for any parent or practitioner is to be aware of a child’s weight status.
The next step is admittedly more difficult. Making healthy choices in today’s environment is like navigating a minefield. Parents and kids face a daily barrage of food advertising (none of it for broccoli, I might add), and finding the time to plan and prepare healthy meals at home or take our kids out to play is simply not a reality for many people. Our environment is structured in such a way that the less healthy (often more convenient) choice, whether it be taking the elevator or giving your kid $5 to buy pizza at lunch, is the dominant one. Until our environment becomes more conducive to healthier choices, we are unfortunately stuck navigating this minefield. Ensuring our kids are getting balanced, healthy meals and enough physical activity requires a lot of effort; but there are a few things parents can do to get their kids on a healthier track:
- Know your child’s weight status. Parents should initiate a conversation with their kids’ pediatricians or health care providers about where their kids are on the growth charts, and whether there is cause for concern. There are also calculators online that can assist parents in figuring out where their child stands in relation to a healthy weight (e.g., http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpabmi/). Pediatricians and other health care providers may also be able to help identify some key leverage points you can target to get the most bang for your buck, like cutting out soda and juice, and limiting TV time.
- Start early, and stick with it. Kids are notoriously picky eaters, but persistence can pay off. You may have to introduce a healthy food over 10 times before your child will accept it. Don’t force the issue, but do keep offering healthier items over and over again; eventually, he or she may take a liking to those green beans. It is much harder to reverse bad habits in adolescence than to instill good habits when a child is 3 or 4.
- Change the environment. When we are exposed to different cues in our environments, we are “primed” to make particular choices; unfortunately, the current cues that surround us promote unhealthy selections. Subtle changes to the environment can lead to better choices, however. For example, in a recent study, just having whole fruit in sight made kids pick healthier school lunches, even if they did not purchase the fruit. Another study asked children “what would Batman eat” before they chose either French fries or apple slices. The children who were not “primed” chose apple slices 9% of the time, while the children who were primed with the Batman question chose apple slices 46% of the time. You can help facilitate healthier choices by limiting kids’ exposure to unhealthy cues and increasing their exposure to healthier cues. For example, hide the unhealthy snack foods on high shelves behind closed doors, and leave a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. Read Obesity 101 to find out more about how the environment influences the way we eat and exercise, and the science behind the nature vs. nurture debate.
For more tips and information on childhood obesity and a variety of other resources, see http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/children/index.html, and check out our book Obesity 101.