As the childhood obesity epidemic continues to rise in the United States, lives are put at risk as health problems become more common in children that were once only seen in adults.
Researchers in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences are working to reverse this trend, including Assistant Professor Deborah John and Assistant Professor Siew Sun Wong, discuss childhood obesity, how to prevent children from becoming obese and what to do if there’s already a problem.
Learn more about Deborah’s research with GROW Healthy Kids and Communities.
- About one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese. More than one in six children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be obese.
- In a recent study, researchers found that proportionately, more rural than urban children ages 2 to 19 were overweight/obese (35.4% v. 29.3%) and obese (18.6% v. 15.1%). Rural children had 30% higher odds of being overweight and/or obese even after adjustment for sociodemographics, health, diet and exercise behaviors.
What causes childhood obesity?
Deborah: Childhood obesity is caused over time by an imbalance between calories consumed from food and drinks and calories expended in physical activity that result in excess calorie storage as body fat and unhealthy weight gain.
Lifestyle issues — too little activity and too many calories from food and drinks — remain a significant contributor to childhood obesity.
Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the behaviors that lead to extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Childhood obesity can also contribute to poor self-esteem and depression.
At what age do children need to start eating healthy and exercising?
Deborah: Whether your child is at risk of becoming overweight or currently at a healthy weight, you can take proactive measures to get or keep things on the right track.
- Set a good example. Focus on “weight healthy” family nutrition and physical activity policies and practices, like turning off the T.V. and eating meals together as a family, getting adequate sleep, limiting screen time and playing actively every day. The GROW Healthy Kids and Communities website provides family newsletters that feature easy, quick and fun tips, resources, recipes and activities to help your family eat healthy and be active together all year long.
- Be responsible about your own weight health. Obesity often occurs in several family members. Taking control by modeling healthy dietary and active lifestyle behaviors will motivate your child to follow your lead.
- Encourage a weight healthy lifestyle by highlighting the positive — the fun of playing outside or the yummy variety of fresh fruits you can snack on year-round. If you foster your child’s natural inclination to run around, explore and eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day, maintaining healthy weight should take care of itself.
Siew Sun: As early as possible so that you and your child (including baby) learn about his/her cues, i.e., to eat when hungry and stop when full. It is also advantageous to expose your child early to more ways to enjoy eating (or even help preparing food) in a variety and in moderation, and to enjoy being active, doing fun things with family and friends to build beautiful memories in childhood, such as hike to harvest traditional foods with grandparents; climb trees and sand dunes; chase butterflies, seagull and crabs; fly a big kite or balloons; run, dance and dig small holes on the beach. More creative ideas are available at Let’s Move.
As a parent or caregiver, how can I prevent my child from being overweight or obese?
Deborah: Create a family culture of health. Although the causes of childhood obesity are widespread, certain modifiable factors are targeted as major contributors to this epidemic. Children, particularly during early childhood, are dependent on parents and adult caregivers to provide supports and guidance that they need to develop healthy lifestyle habits, preferences and values. The family home environment and family’s health culture contribute to healthy child development.The American Dietetic Association Foundation provides an easy to use, online screening tool that will allow you to evaluate your family’s home environment with regard to nutrition and physical activity.
Increase physical activity. Children in today’s society show a decrease in overall physical activity. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, and much should be of moderate to vigorous intensity. The growing use of computers, increased time watching television and decreased physical education and active recess time in schools all contribute to children and adolescents living a more sedentary lifestyle.
Such a lifestyle is a major factor contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. School-aged children tend to ride a bus or in a car rather than walk or bike to school. They spend most of their day in class where their only activity comes during recess or physical education classes.
Make family time an opportunity for physical activity. Take a walk together after a family meal. Turn housework, yard work or walking the dog into active time together. Make use of low- or no-cost resources, such as public parks, community courts and recreation areas. Replace inactivity with activity whenever possible.
Improve dietary patterns. Over the past few decades, dietary patterns have changed significantly. The average amount of calories consumed per day by youth and adults in the U.S. has dramatically increased, particularly in the consumption of “empty” calories that are low in nutrients needed for a healthy diet.
Food portions also play an important role in the unhealthy diet patterns that have evolved. The prevalence of “super size” options and “all-you-can-eat” buffets create a trend in over consuming. Combined with a lack of physical activity, children (and adults) are eating more and burning off less.
My child is severely overweight – is it too late? What can I do to turn his/her life around in a healthy direction?
Deborah: Children who are considered obese are 70 percent more likely to continue being obese into adulthood. In addition, they are at greater risk for serious medical issues such as heart disease, diabetes and sleep apnea. Aside from physical health concerns, children who are obese face social discrimination, leading to mental health problems such as low self-esteem and depression.
Treating obesity in children and adolescents differs from treatment in adults. It is important to talk with your physician about options for treating childhood obesity. Additionally, a family that engages in weight healthy lifestyle habits – healthy dietary patterns that consider both quality and quantity of foods and beverages consumed balanced with daily physical activity, both light and moderate to vigorous activities – is integral in ensuring healthy weight for all family members.
My child is a picky eater. What can I do to help him/her eat healthy?
Siew Sun: There are many types of picky eating behaviors. For example, your preschoolers may refuse to try new foods, only like certain kinds of foods, dislike certain colors of food or seem uninterested in eating at all. Some coping strategies recommended by experts include:
- Offer choices. Instead of asking “Do you want broccoli for dinner,” ask, “Which would you like for dinner, broccoli or cauliflower?”
- Let your kids be “produce pickers” at the store and/or in the garden.
- Have your child help you prepare meals, including seafood. They often get excited about tasting the food they help prepare.
- Enjoy each other while having family meals together. Don’t make dinner time a time for arguments
- Offer the same foods for the whole family. For older children, tell a story, especially your own childhood story or family story relating to the food you are introducing to your children.
My child refuses to exercise or play sports. What are some alternative options to working out that can benefit his/her health?
Deborah: Expose children to a variety of physical activities that are fun for them. Give them toys and games that promote physical activity. Be positive about the physical activities in which your child chooses to participate. Encourage your child to talk about her or his experience with physical activity, and let your child know you value physical activity participation in every form. Help your child get to and from physical activity opportunities, such as practices, programs and community events.
My child has special needs. What are some adapted ways I can help my child eat healthy and exercise?
Siew Sun: The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center offers a variety of information for children with special needs to eat healthy and be active. This includes guidance on food allergies, diabetes, ketogenic diet, feeding skills, school meals and gardening for children with disabilities. For example, teach your child to read the nutrition facts label and the ingredients list to avoid food components and serving sizes that would make them feel sick. Children with special needs may be more likely than other children to become overweight. However, every person’s healthy weight can be different. Some strategies to engage children with special needs in healthy eating and physical activity include instead of offering food at any time; offer structure or routine such as three nutritious meals and two healthy snacks at consistent times every day and instead of letting your child sit still for long periods, make sure he/she has the opportunity to move or change position every 30-60 minutes if he/she cannot move him/herself.
I’d like to get involved in community healthy activities. How can I find those resources?
Deborah: Partner with your child’s school and learn how the school supports healthy eating and physical activity. Practice those same activities at home. Volunteer for the school wellness committee, start a safe routes to school program, join a community garden and/or lead a 4-H healthy lifestyles club.
Healthy lifestyles, better eating and physical activity STARTS TODAY!
Siew Sun: Although it takes time and effort to build healthy habits, we need to start today and persevere. Personalize each eating and playing occasion for the sake of engraving a beautiful memory on the hearts of your family. Don’t give up. A Chinese proverb says, “If you work at it hard enough, you can grind an iron bar into a needle.”