Kids Need to Seize the Day

Childhood obesity prevention tips and strategies

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Kids shouldn’t have to worry about pre-diabetes or an increased risk for heart disease. They should be focused on enjoying life. But obesity is serious and affecting many children.

Most overweight children aren't aware of their health status because so many of their friends are affected too. Childhood obesity currently affects 17 percent of the population in the United Sates. That’s nearly 12.5 million children between the ages of 2 and 19 that are burdened and suffering! This obesity problem has nearly tripled in the past thirty years.

Childhood obesity is caused by an imbalance in the body where kids are eating too many calories and their bodies are not burning off enough excess weight.

One tool most health experts use are standardized growth charts to determine a person's Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is used because it is a quick reliable indicator for body fat

  • It is calculated from height and weight
  • Overweight children are defined by a BMI above the 85th percentile and lower than the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex
  • Obesity is defined by a BMI that is above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex

Risks associated with childhood obesity:

Nearly 70 percent of youth between the ages of 5 and 17 had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease/heart disease. Obese kids are more likely to have risk factors for high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Obese children are more likely to have pre-diabetes which will increase risks for developing type 2 diabetes later in life. Extra weight can cause strain on bones and joints which can eventually lead to wear and tear of the joints called osteoarthritis. Obesity can increase symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis as well, like joint pain or stiffness because more fat cells increase risk for inflammatory complications. Obesity can increase risks for sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where pauses occur in breathing while sleeping or instances of abnormally low breathing occur while sleeping.

Physical health problems are just half the story. There is a chance that childhood obesity can bring unwanted attention to children that can cause social and psychological problems like stigmatization (a mental or physical mark of a disease) or poor self-esteem. Low self-esteem and constant bullying could cause children to become clinically depressed or develop eating disorders.

As obese children get older they are more likely to become obese adults as well. Symptoms, risks and health problems they have when they are younger will only become more severe as they become adults.

Factors that might contribute to childhood obesity:

  • Being inactive
  • Drinking lots of sugar drinks
  • Eating high fat, calorie, sugar, or salty foods
  • Communities or day cares that don’t encourage physical activity or healthy snacking
  • Schools not encouraging physical activity or requiring Physical Education classes
  • No access to healthy affordable foods
  • Increasing portion sizes
  • Lack of breastfeeding support
  • Children spending more time in front of a screen

There is no one strategy or solution that will end childhood obesity immediately. It's a process and it will take time. Learn what you, parents, communities and states can do to help with the epidemic or just simply shed a few unwanted pounds.

Strategies for parents:

  • Get involved in your kids schools - suggest healthier foods that can be purchased outside of the school lunch program to have less added sugar, fat and salt.
  • If your child goes to a day care, find out the types of foods they're allowing and how much time they spend looking at television screens there.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting children to no more than one to two hours of quality program viewing per day.
  • Keep high-energy dense foods away from the house to avoid temptation. High-energy dense foods are ones that are high in calories with no other nutritional value.
  • Introduce fruits and vegetables as healthful snacks.
  • Stop allowing kids to drink so many sugary drinks like sports drinks and sodas - give them water instead
  • Encourage kids to be physically active - let them play outside with friends or join a sports team
  • Kids need aerobic, muscle and bone strengthening exercises just like adults.
  • Children should be getting around 60 minutes of aerobic exercise each day which include brisk walking or running.
  • At least three days out of the week children should be including muscle and bone strengthening exercises for healthy development.

Jim Crowell, fitness expert, has much to say on healthy habits for children, "Childhood obesity is gaining momentum right now and it is crucial that children develop good habits when they are young. I have many children that come to me who are only 10-12 years old but they already have, or are getting close to having, childhood diabetes. Of course not every case of childhood diabetes could have been avoided but it is my belief that many can."

Crowell continues, "It all begins with an active lifestyle and proper nutrition. The way I like to work with my clients who are children is from a very simple perspective....I find what it is about fitness they like and I run with it."

Exercise shouldn't be something kids dread; they should be excited about it. Crowell agrees by saying, "Too often fitness is looked at as a punishment. When I change a child's perspective to have them see fitness as fun, competitive, and healthy they latch their teeth into it."

"As a parent or as a coach you need to teach kids why fitness is helpful and you really need to show them how it can be fun. Even kids who have no desire to compete in athletics can lead an active life; they just need to be shown how," Crowell says. Change their perspective about playing outside, playing a sport, or doing some sort of fitness activity and their lives will start out on the right foot.

"And, when they begin life with good habits it is far easier for them to succeed versus when you have to change bad habits," Crowell comments. "Parents know their children better than anybody else so you will know what captivates your children,” Crowell explains

Crowell offers tips for children who are:

  • Energetic and aggressive: see if perhaps a sports approach works for them and then explain to them that they are allowed to let their energy out on the field/ice/court.
  • Artistic, calm, and more of a deep thinker: dancing or yoga would be a great path for them to try in order to stimulate that creative side.
  • Focused, hard working and an all around athlete: try athletics or put them into more of a fitness/endurance athletic idea because not all kids like team sports, some like lifting weights, or testing their bodies and minds.

Crowell says, "It's important to appeal to their personalities if you want them to succeed and progress with anything health and fitness related."

Strategies for states and communities:

  • Retail food environments need to be assessed to understand the current accessibility of healthier foods
  • States should provide incentives to existing supermarkets and farmers' markets to start businesses or sell their healthier foods in low-income areas
  • Expand programs that can bring local fruits and vegetables to schools
  • Salad bars should be a part of school's cafeterias
  • Improve standards for child care licensing to reduce the availability of less healthy foods, sugar drinks and limit screen time
  • All grade levels - elementary, middle and high schools - should enroll in United States Department of Agriculture's Team Nutrition program and apply for certification through the HealthierUS School Challenge
  • Put more water fountains around to increase access of free drinking water and limit the sale of sugar drinks to schools by establishing school wellness and nutrition policies
  • Support and encourage breastfeeding in hospitals and workplaces
  • Create safer neighborhoods so parents and kids will be willing to play at nearby parks and playgrounds
  • Schools and child care facilities need to encourage quality daily physical education and activity

If there are school or community meetings that you can voice your opinion, then do it. Help make your environment healthier for you and your child.

Review Date: 
September 20, 2011