Dr. Elise Herman
Childhood obesity is truly an epidemic. In the past 30 years, the percentage of American kids who are overweight has tripled to 17%, or about 1 in 5 children. Additionally, the very heaviest children are even bigger than previously. Adults also have an increasing rate of obesity, but it is especially sad to see kids now dealing with what used to be adult-only health issues due to obesity: Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and lipid levels, fatty liver, sleep apnea and joint problems. Obese children are more likely to grow up to be obese adults, with increased risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
The emotional and psychological side of obesity is significant as well. These children have greater occurrence of depression, low self-esteem, poor body image and eating disorders. Overweight kids are also more likely to be bullied, compounding their distress.
There is no single cause of childhood obesity, but there are know factors that contribute, including the child’s diet. Diets higher in fats and simple sugars and lower in fruits and vegetables are linked to obesity. Drinking sweetened liquids such as soda and juice can count for lots of extra calories with minimal nutrition. Even diluted juice can give a child extra calories and sugar they do not need and is not recommended on a regular basis. Milk, although a good source of calcium and protein, should be limited to 16 ounces per day.
Snacking can be a major source of calories for American kids, as snacks are increasingly processed and high calorie. Some kids snack almost continuously and can take in more than a quarter of their daily calories in this way; this is especially true in 2-6 year olds. Having regular family meals with minimal snacking decreases the risk of childhood obesity.
Genetics may play a role as well, although the bigger issue may be the environment—high calorie snacks, inadequate exercise and lack of regular family meals probably contribute more than actual genetics.
Exercise helps kids maintain a healthy weight by not only burning calories but also by keeping them busy and elevating their mood. Like adults, kids may eat out of boredom or for emotional reasons; exercise works against this. Due to computer, TV, personal electronic devices and video games, however, kids are more sedentary than ever. Limiting the usage of electronics and encouraging kids to get at least 1 hour of exercise a day (with most of this being aerobic exercise) is important.
A surprising contributor to childhood and adult obesity is lack of sleep. This may be due to hormonal alterations, less regular meals and poorer food choices when sleep-deprived. It is recommended that kindergartners get 10-12 hours of sleep a night, with the amount decreasing as kids get older, with the goal for the teen to be 9-10 hours per night.
So what’s a parent to do? Like many issues, setting a good example is important. Regular family meals, minimal snacking of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, routine exercise (ideally outside to elevate the mood and keep us away from the kitchen!) and regulated use of technology all help. The goal should also be a healthy lifestyle and healthy habits, not a number on the scale or the desire to be thin, as this could backfire and predispose to an eating disorder. Have fun with your family as you enjoy regular meals together as well as getting out and being active, and preventing childhood obesity will be a natural healthy side effect!
*Opinions expressed by KVH Contributors are their own. Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.