Big Kids: 10 Things Parents Can Do to Fight Childhood Obesity

By: Maria Trimarchi

Obesity is a growing problem among kids and teens but parents can help by taking these 10 steps.
Obesity is a growing problem among kids and teens but parents can help by taking these 10 steps.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

The childhood obesity problem in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions -- we're raising a generation of obese kids and teens who are at risk for becoming the heaviest generation in history. Just how bad is it? One study found that an estimated 80 percent of overweight pre-teens and teens (ages 10 to 15) were obese by the age of 25. Another reports that 25 percent of adults who are currently obese were also overweight during childhood. While studies can't seem to agree on the severity of the link between childhood and adult obesity, they do agree that there is a link. Curbing childhood obesity is a fight for all of us.

Winning the war against obesity will not only make us a healthier nation, it will also, among a plentiful list of positives, reduce the number of kids and teens with adult-sized diseases, and reduce the amount we spend on health care (currently hovering around $150 billion a year on obesity-related medical expenses). The percentage of children and teens struggling with obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years, but there are ways we can decrease the risks and tip the scales back. First, let's get moving.


10: Get Moving

Does your school provide physical education? Depending on where you live, your answer could be "Yes," "No," or "Yes, but it's not required." To stay healthy and fight weight gain, all Americans should aim for at least 60 minutes of sweat-inducing exercise every day. But the reality is that fewer than one third of kids and teens ages 6 to 17 get even 20 minutes of that kind of vigorous exercise. Although most states require students to participate in some kind physical education, many schools within those states don't make the grade. And only five states require all school-aged kids -- kindergarten through 12th grade -- to participate in physical education.

The American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommend that teens (middle and high school students) get 225 minutes (almost four hours) of physical education every week, so parents should consider supplementing physical activities at home. Remember those 60 minutes can happen throughout the day, so sprinkle your kids' schedules with activities that will get them moving.


9: Limit TV Time

Obesity is a growing problem among kids and teens but parents can help by limiting the amount of TV their kids watch.
Obesity is a growing problem among kids and teens but parents can help by limiting the amount of TV their kids watch.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that kids and teens ages 8 to 18 spend, on average, about six hours a day in front of a screen, that's four hours a day watching TV and two hours playing video games or using the computer for non-homework activities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents limit the amount of time kids and teens spend playing video games, watching TV and using the Internet to two hours or less a day (not counting the time they spend doing homework). The AAP also advises that kids who watch too much television read less, perform worse in school, exercise less and are more likely to be overweight or obese than kids and teens who limit their time spent in front of the TV. A study published in the October 2005 issue of "The Journal of Pediatrics" found that girls ages 9 and 11 with a television watching habit of more than two hours a day were 2.6 times more likely to be overweight than girls who watched TV less than two hours a day.


8: Beware Beverages

Do kids drink too many calories? Cutting sugary drinks out of your child's diet (and your own) can help to significantly reduce the number of calories your child consumes every day. Sweetened drinks and fruit drinks offer nothing except sugar and calories. Even 100 percent fruit juices, although better than fruit-flavored, sugary drinks because of their vitamins and nutrients, still pack in a lot of calories per serving. So be sure to limit how much your kids drink. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids ages 7 and older drink no more than 12 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice a day (one serving of fruit is equal to four ounces of 100 percent fruit juice).

Water and milk are the healthiest beverage options to keep in the refrigerator, and educate your kids about how to make the right choices when they aren't with you (you won't be there when the lure of the school vending machine pulls at them). Older children and teens will understand the idea of "you are what you drink," which is important because, according to a study published in the journal "Lancet," every serving of soda increases a kid's risk of becoming obese by about 60 percent.


7: Get Your Zzzs

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have found an association between childhood obesity and the number of hours a child sleeps each night -- the fewer hours of sleep each night increases the risk of being overweight or obese. Kids who are 10 years old or older and teens need nine or more hours of sleep every day, but more than 90 percent of teens don't get that much (and 10 percent of teens sleep less than six hours a day). For every additional hour of sleep a child gets, the risk of becoming overweight or obese decreases by 9 percent.

Additionally, a study presented at the 2010 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting found that too little sleep during the week and weekends increased the risk of weight gain in middle-school age boys, while less sleep on weekends negatively affected the weight of middle-school age girls. High schoolers also had a weight gain to sleep duration link but not as strongly as younger teens.


6: Eat Breakfast

Skipping breakfast doesn't actually help you lose weight, and it may actually make you gain weight or have trouble keeping your weight under control. No matter how rushed you and your family may be each morning, or if your family isn't usually hungry in the morning, make breakfast a grab-and-go event. Offer foods that travel easily such as yogurt and trail mix or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread.

Kids and teens who skip breakfast are not only at risk for developing a weight problem, skipping this meal also leaves kids and teens tired and irritable during the day -- and hungry. And the hungrier they are, the more likely the kids are to reach for high-calorie foods (and lots of them) that aren't very good for them.


5: Family Dinner


When a child is overweight or obese, it's a family problem and, while not a solution in itself, having family meals can help reduce your family's risk for becoming overweight or obese. When families eat together, they tend to eat healthier meals -- less fried foods and more vegetables. The good news is that many families are already practicing this tip. A study published in the March 2010 issue of "Pediatrics" found that about 56 percent of American families have dinner together at least six evenings per week, and when families ate dinner together more than five times a week, there was a 23 to 25 percent reduction in the number of kids with weight problems.

Remember tip number nine? It counts here, too. When families watch TV while eating, even if you're all sitting together at the dinner table, the nutritional quality of the meal takes a nosedive, so turn off the tube and spend time with each other.


4: Healthy Snacking

Snacking itself isn't bad for us, as long as we're careful about the snacks we choose and how much we eat.

In general, aim for snacks that are low in fat, sugar and sodium. As for snack size -- one snack should be about 100 calories. When you're snacking on healthy food, 100 calories is more food than you think. For example, two Oreo cookies are about 100 calories. Twenty Lay's potato chips (a serving size) add up to 150 calories. But healthy snacks that fit into the 100-calorie snack size include 1 cup of blueberries, a medium-sized banana, or a cup of carrots with 2 tablespoons of hummus for dipping. Teaching kids to combine food groups in their snacks adds to a snack's health factor. Protein and carbohydrates are a good pairing -- think cheese and crackers, yogurt and fruit -- because the combo is filling enough to sustain you until mealtime.


3: Educate Your Kids

One of the more important things we can do as parents is prepare our kids to be healthy, productive, happy adults. It may seem like a small step, but you'd be surprised how often it's overlooked: Teaching kids how to properly take care of their bodies is one of the keys to fighting obesity.

Inviting kids and teens to go grocery shopping with you or prepare meals by your side allows time for you to teach them about what a body needs and doesn't need. Fruits and vegetables are OK while soda and French fries are not. Educate your kids about the food pyramid. It's changed since you were a kid, so get a refresher for yourself at the Web site. Instruct your children on how to read food labels. For example, glancing at the calories in a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, you'll see 100 calories. What your kids might miss, though, is that it's 100 calories per serving, and there are 2.5 servings in that bottle. Drink the whole thing, and you've consumed 250 calories -- that's almost the same amount of calories in one 7-layer burrito from Taco Bell.


2: Community Involvement

Some of what we can do to fight childhood obesity is within our own immediate reach, such as moderating the foods we eat and how active we are. But raising a healthier generation of kids will also mean that we become aware of and involved in what's going on in our community at large. Parents and non-parents alike can (and should) support initiatives that establish healthier lifestyles, including farm-to-school programs, local farmer's markets and community gardens to help kids make the connection between what they eat and where food comes from, and programs that would create more sidewalks and bike lanes to help kids -- and everyone in the neighborhood -- get outside and get active.


1: Focus on Health, Not on Weight

Obesity is a growing problem among kids and teens but parents can help by making sure their kids are active and eat healthy meals.
Obesity is a growing problem among kids and teens but parents can help by making sure their kids are active and eat healthy meals.

While not all pre-teens and teens are vulnerable to eating disorders -- believed to be caused by a cocktail of genetics, behavioral and social influences -- creating an environment where food and weight are constantly examined, evaluated and criticized, may lead to kids developing at the very least an unhealthy relationship with food, low self esteem and poor body image.

More than 10 million American women and about 1 million American men suffer from eating disorders, and the numbers grow bigger when you also add in binge-eating problems and unhealthy preoccupations with body shape and weight. And according to the CDC's 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, more than 12 percent of high schoolers have skipped eating for 24 hours or more in an effort to lose weight or to keep weight off. Instead of making food a battleground at mealtimes, offer healthy food choices, let kids decide when they are hungry and full, and maybe most importantly, model your own healthy relationship with food and exercise.

Lots More Information

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