Children are growing up in a different world, before the explosion of cable television, video games, sugary drinks, and fast food.
With the increase of options comes a consequence: Childhood obesity more than doubled in children – and tripled in adolescents – in the last 30 years, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control. Left unchecked, obesity can contribute to a number of health issues in adulthood - diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, back pain, and sleep apnea.
While many factors have contributed to the rise in childhood obesity, it is primarily a result of behavioral changes, most notably the increase in time spent in front of the television, and a decrease in the amount of fresh food that children eat, according to David Anthony, MD, MSc, of Memorial Hospital of RI and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
"More people are purchasing prepackaged food or food prepared at a restaurant, which tend to have a lot more calories and sugar than food prepared at home," he said. These people are also more apt to buy sweetened drinks (soft drinks, fruit or energy drinks) which also can contain a large amount of sugar and empty calories.
Dr. Anthony said parents can do a few simple things to help ensure children maintain a healthy weight:
- Avoid sugary drinks like soda or juice. Research shows that 10-15 percent of the average child's caloric intake is from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. "Those are calories that can be removed by drinking water instead. Nowadays, when you go to a kids' soccer game, the kids are all given a juice box. They don't need that. If they are thirsty, they should be drinking water."
- Cook more at home as a family. "There's been a real decline in the number of families that actually cook and eat together at the table," he said. "A lot of kids really do seem to like to cook. Cook with them and teach them how to handle food, and the full range of colors and tastes food offers." Dr. Anthony's children started preparing family meals at the ages of 10 and 12. He recommends ChopChop magazine as a great resource.
- Encourage more exercise/physical activity by limiting television/video game hours. "There's a very clear association between hours of television watching and obesity," he said, recommending no more than two hours of television (including video games) per day for children of all ages. "That forces kids to do things that are more active. The great thing about kids is they'll find something to do to entertain themselves."
- Make regular visits to the pediatrician. Make sure your children get regular checkups to keep track of their weight and body mass index.
- Ensure your child gets enough sleep. Children who sleep less tend to be more obese.
- Have your child bring lunch. "The food served in schools has improved but I would still encourage people to brown-bag lunch if they can afford it, because food prepared in the home is generally going to be healthier," he said.
Dr. Anthony stressed that parents not put children "on a diet." Rather, they should focus on lifestyle changes.
"We don't want kids to focus on losing weight because they are still growing and it's important that they continue to grow," he said. "The goal is to have them maintain a weight as their body grows taller. It's important to remember it's a marathon, not a sprint. Small changes you can sustain in their lifestyle will have a big impact over the years. If they learn to eat a healthy diet and be active, that's a life skill they will have."
Because infants and very young children often have extra body fat, a good time to start paying attention to a child's weight is around the time they enter school. Dr. Anthony said of obese preschool children, a quarter of them will be obese adults. But by ages of 10 to13, 80 percent of obese children will remain obese.
"What's most important is that you live a healthy lifestyle, irrespective of weight," he said. "Even if you are a few pounds overweight, if you are eating a healthy diet, getting exercise, and avoiding smoking or drinking in excess, you can be considerably healthier than someone who weighs less. There are many people who are overweight but active, and their prognosis is excellent. It's the combination of obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle that you want to avoid."
There is also some good news – evidence that childhood obesity is leveling off.
"In the last 10 years, the rates of child obesity have been fairly steady, and in just the past couple of years, the CDC has reported there's been a slight decrease in some states," Dr. Ashley said. "The Rhode Island rates have been steady (at slightly higher than the national average)."
- Pamela Berard