There is no question that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic and a public health crisis. As September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, we cannot let this month go without addressing this growing problem. We want to provide those of you who are parents, those who work with children, uncles and aunts, and all adults who interact with kids, with simple, practical techniques that will help the children in your life achieve and maintain best health, and set a foundation of healthy eating habits.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017, for the first time, life expectancy at birth was lower than the previous year in the total U.S. population. The leading causes of death were heart disease and cancer. Both heart disease and many types of cancers are related to obesity. Starting healthy habits early will set your children up for not only a longer lifespan, but also a longer healthspan – the number of years they live healthy lives.
Unfortunately, the odds of setting our children up for success are against us. According to CDC, about 1 in 5 (19%) children in the United States has obesity.
Childhood obesity can be attributed to multiple factors. The most significant factors responsible for this rapid rise in obesity include increased portion size, snacks, increased consumption of processed foods, sugar and fats and inadequate physical activity. Other risk factors include family, psychological, socioeconomic and genetic factors. Besides causing adverse health effects, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and asthma, childhood obesity can result in social, cognitive and emotional consequences, such as lower self-esteem, mood disorders and poor academic performance.
To help parents and caregivers who are wondering, how they can promote healthy nutrition habits, my colleague, Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran and I created a video on how to convert picky eaters into healthy (and happy!) eaters and how to encourage healthy eating habits in children.
As a mom, I know how hard it can be to implement new habits. It is not an easy process, especially when our culture encourages us to have processed treats, sugar, fast food and snacks. Introduce new habits, one by one. Start with the habits you feel most comfortable with. Small interventions go a long way. For example, you may say to your children that they get to pick which of their “sometimes” treats they will have at the next birthday party they attend. For example, you may give them a choice to have a piece of cake or juice. A 12 ounce glass of orange juice contains up to 9 teaspoons of sugar, which is 36 grams of sugar. This is the same as a 12 ounce can of Coke. Let’s do a calculation: if someone has 1 glass of orange juice daily, over the course of the year, this is 3,285 teaspoons of sugar (almost 14 kg of sugar)! This is 53,394 extra calories per year! If you are wondering about missing out vitamin C in orange juice, let me assure you: the risk of this excess amount of sugar and lack of fiber far outweigh the benefit of vitamin C in orange juice. Offer an orange instead. This is just one example, but it illustrates that with each habit that we create that is not serving us, the impact over time is significant. We need to choose our habits wisely and encourage our children to do so as well!
HERE ARE OUR TOP 12 TIPS:
1. Parent decides what foods and drinks to serve
2. Kids decide which of these foods to have and how much
3. Involve kids in food preparation, reading labels and understanding where their food comes from
4. Serve vegetables first, then serve the pasta (if you are not sure if your child will ever finish those veggies)
5. Encourage your kids to eat with other kids who have healthy eating habits
6. Have as many meals a week together as a family
7. Role model mindful eating (e.g., avoid eating while watching TV)
8. When you offer snacks, offer healthy ones (see our video for ideas)
9. Have meals at the same time daily
10. Encourage your children to tune into their bodies to determine if they are full
11. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad”. You can talk to your kids about foods that are healthier vs foods that are “sometimes foods” or “once in a while” foods.
12. Besides nutrition, be mindful about nourishing relationships, family quality time, adequate sleep and physical activities!
I promise, these tools will work if practiced consistently!
To calculate your child’s body mass index (BMI) and find out the BMI percentile, and weight status, you may go to the CDC website. I encourage all parents to speak to their child’s pediatrician if they have any concerns, or are uncertain which category their child’s weight is in.