As a dietitian and a parent, it saddens me to know one in three children in the United States is overweight or obese. How did we get to this extreme point?! Childhood obesity puts kids at risk for health problems that were once only seen in adults, like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and it makes me contemplate what parents can do, including myself, to grow happy, healthy children.
The good news is childhood obesity can be prevented. It’s a life balance of eating healthier, becoming more active, and reducing screen time (TV, ipad, video games, etc.) As a national campaign, it’s important for communities, health professionals, and families to work together to create opportunities for kids to eat healthier and get more active.
Boost Fruits and Vegetable Intake
The way fruits and vegetables interact with a child's gut microbiome has a massive impact on their appetite, cravings, body weight, and even mood. the bugs within the gut have all the power when it comes to health. If kids regularly eat a standard American diet full of pizza, chips, soda pop, and candy, the gut bacteria in the microbiome can't thrive and this makes a child more predisposed to a body weight that isn't ideal for their height.
- Offer fruits and vegetables first. Don’t wait until dinner to offer vegetables. Kids will almost always go for the starch on their plate first, so by the time they get to the vegetables, they’re full.
- Offer a dipping sauce with the fruit or vegetable. My boys are more likely to eat vegetables if there's a yummy dip such as pesto, tzatziki, tahini, hummus, or salad dressing.
- One trick that works for my 2 and 3 y.o. boys is to give them a carrot or celery stick when they’re hungry but I’m still making a meal, such as breakfast or dinner. I also make a veggie plate as an “appetizer” before dinner when they’re hungry but it isn’t ready yet. The vegetables work great because it gives them something to eat, but doesn’t ruin their appetite. Even better, it gets them to eat their veggies!
- Keep fresh fruit and vegetables within reach. As the parent, you decide what they eat, so place foods you want them to eat within their reach.
- When going out-and-about, I always pack dried fruit for my kids to snack on. They're not messy, tasty, and an easy way to sneak in fruit. Their favorites are dried pineapple, mango, banana, cherries, and raisins.
Exercise as a Family
Physical activity favorably alters the bacteria that reside in the gut microbiome.
- Go on a family walk or bike ride after dinner, go hiking on the weekends, have a bowling night, take them roller skating, take them to a local outdoor track and let them run around while you walk/jog laps or run stadium stairs, play baseball or go to the batting cages, hit golf balls at the driving range, or go to the swimming pool.
Gifting Physical Activity
- For gift ideas, give things that promote being active, such as a soccer ball, bike, scooter, new running shoes, balloons to hit around, or a trampoline.
Involve Your Kids
- Get your kids involved in planning and cooking meals. If your kids are old enough, let them pick the meal, and ensure they include a vegetable of their choice. Depending on their age, allow your child to chop the veggies, or you chop them and let your child put the salad together.
- If my kids are grocery shopping with me, I love having them pick out one new fruit or vegetable they have never eaten, or haven't eaten in a long time. This is great for experiencing new flavors and textures, and also great for the health of the gut microbiome.
Activity in Extreme Temps
- For the winter months or extremely hot months (depending on where you live), seek out indoor play areas, such as indoor bounce house facilities, gymnastic open gyms, climbing walls, indoor parks, indoor climbing structures, indoor soccer fields, and roller skating rinks.
Monitor Screen Time
- My kids are only 2 and 3 years old, and at such a young age, I can see how excessive screen time could already become a concern. I notice an undesirable shift in behavior with the older kiddo after watching TV. The transition away from TV often does not end well. Kids love watching TV! But that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.
- Update: my kids are now 8 and 9 and we do not own ipads. They watch DVD's on road trips, and maybe once a week they watch a TV show (they still prefer cartoon-ish shows and movies). I do not allow TV watching or any screen time in the morning before school. I do not allow screen time if they haven't had some outside playtime. I remain very strict about screen time.
- Use this Screen Time Chart to start tracking how much time your family spends in front of a screen, including things like TV- and DVD-watching, playing video games, and using the computer for something other than school or work. Compare screen time to how much physical activity they get so you’ll get a sense of what changes need to be made. Keep one chart for each person.
This month, commit to making one change for your kids to reduce their risk of childhood obesity.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods