Combating Childhood Obesity

by Caitlyn Stace

preschoolers with hands upChildhood obesity has reached epic proportions in the United States. How do we fight back?

"Obese children have a 70-80 percent chance of being overweight for their entire life. They face other health risks such as increased chance of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Additionally, there is an increased rate of certain types of cancer," says Dr. Tamara Sheffield, creator of the LiVe Program. "Childhood obesity can increase the severity of common childhood health problems such as asthma."

Fighting the Fat Monster

According to Dr. Sheffield, "The most common cause of obesity in children is a shift in family habits to those that are less healthy than they were in past decades. We have fewer opportunities to be active, and our portions of food have grown."

She encourages families to focus on these eight healthy habits:

  1. Eat a healthy breakfast every day
  2. Eat more fruits and vegetables instead of food loaded with calories
  3. Eliminate drinks with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup
  4. Limit screen time (TV, videos, computers) to no more than one to two hours for children, and none for toddlers under two-years-old
  5. Increase physical activity (kids should be running around most of the day, but at least should get an hour of vigorous activity each day)
  6. Eat meals together as a family
  7. Be positive about food. Food should be viewed as healthy fuel for our bodies instead of as a reward or punishment
  8. Don't criticize each other about weight. Your children learn about their self-image from you. If you're critical about your own weight, they'll focus on theirs as well. Choose foods and activities that showcase good health rather than focus on how they effect appearance.

Your Plan of Attack

A healthy child can be created with this two-pronged offensive: A realistic attitude toward food and an active lifestyle. It's never too early to encourage your child!

The battle-of-the-bulge begins in the womb
very pregnant belly1) Stay active and follow recommendations for weight gain
2) Eats lots of healthy carbohydrates, especially those brightly colored fruits and vegetables
3) Experiment with a variety of tastes (baby will taste them too!)

We recommend: Make your plate beautiful. Colorful foods contain important nutrients for you and your baby!

Top tips for healthier babies:
happy baby exploring1) Breastfeed, and don't offer juice or sugary drinks
2) Let your baby get enough sleep
3) Plan plenty of interactive play time with your baby

We recommend: A box! Fill a box with toys, little stuffed animals, safe kitchen tools. Show your baby how to take off the lid. Which is more fun -- playing "in and out," dumping toys or playing with the box?

Top tips for healthier toddlers:
happy mommy and baby1) Experiment with lots of vegetables and offer these first with meals
2) Limit sugary foods, desserts, and no sweetened drinks except for 6 oz. of juice per day (Note: 65-70% of toddlers consume dessert, ice cream or candy daily, and adults enable that activity. Toddlers do not get those foods by themselves!)
3) Play time, not TV time

We recommend: Set up a pillow and yarn obstacle course. Encourage your tyke to climb those tall pillow mountains and jump over yarn rivers.

Top tips for healthier preschoolers
toddlers on the go1) Limit TV time to 1 hour a day or less
2) No sweetened drinks
3) Run, run, run, run, run, and play some more

We recommend: Picnic time! Invite your child to help. Experiment with a new dip for the veggies such as plain yogurt, lime juice and a touch of your favorite spice.

Factoid: Children who are put on a chair doing nothing will wiggle around, while children who are put in front of a TV actually burn fewer calories than kids who are just "doing nothing".

Questions from our Members

Question: My 20-month-old is overweight -- above the 95th percentile for weight to height. What lifestyle or nutrition changes can I make to get him on track, to ensure my child's weight doesn't become a problem in the future?

Dr. Sheffield answers: Make sure your toddler is getting adequate sleep, is not drinking any sweetened drinks, is not watching TV and is getting a chance to run around daily with you or with peers. Don't use food as a reward or punishment. Offer child-sized portions of food made by you, not by a fast-food outlet. A fast food kid's meal contains the right amount of calories for an adult. Your child should be eating less than that with occasional healthy snacks in between. You can find tips and resources at Intermountain Healthcare, including a 24-page booklet called "8 to Live By".

Daycare question: My child brings a healthy lunch/snacks. Other parents may send less than healthy food, like potato chips, sugary fruit punch and cookies in their child's lunch boxes. My child often ends up eating his classmates' unhealthy foods. How can I get the teacher and other parents enthused and participating in healthy foods for our kids?

Dr. Sheffield answers: You can't always control other's behaviors, but you can control your own environment. Your child should still end up getting the majority of their calories at home. Make sure what you feed them there is as healthy as possible to counteract what they might be exposed to when they are out of your control. Ask the teacher if you can bring healthy snacks (such as veggies or fruit) for your child to share.

Question: My parents think my chubby daughter is cute. Even after I’ve asked that treats and snacks for her are healthy (I have given examples) they continue giving ice cream, candy, cookies and chips & dip. I am at the point of just not visiting. Before things escalate to that point, is there anything I can say that might sink in how overweight isn't "cute."

Dr. Sheffield answers: You may be able to ask for a note from her pediatrician asking others to help you keep your child at a healthier weight or have them write a behavioral prescription for your child. Parents have a hard time listening to their children as experts, because they raised you and you turned out just fine. Enlisting the help of another "expert" may be needed. Share tip #7 -- being positive about food. You can agree to not completely limit all foods they see as treats if they agree not to use food as a reward, punishment or to buy a child's love. You will know best which approach will work best with your parents.

Medical References:
- Interview with Tamara Sheffield, MD, spokeswoman for Intermountain Healthcare's LiVe public service Campaign. LiVe encourages children to have a healthy diet and be active.