Childhood obesity can often be successfully prevented by implementing healthy lifestyle behaviors, including exercise, nutrition, and quality sleep.
Childhood obesity is a serious public health concern in the U.S., where obesity affects 19.3% of all children and teens. Low physical activity levels and an unbalanced diet are some top causes of childhood obesity that are entirely preventable.
Setting a good example for your children by staying active and eating nutritious foods can help them understand and appreciate the importance of a healthy lifestyle and reduce their risk of obesity.
September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Start implementing the following ten healthy habits right now to keep your children in good health and to prevent childhood obesity.
1. Drink More Water
Staying hydrated can keep hunger pangs at bay, especially since hunger is a potential sign of dehydration. So, if your children tend to be hungry when they shouldn’t, such as right after a meal, have them drink water to see if their hunger pangs go away.
Water is also a low-cost and healthy alternative to sugary drinks, including sodas and fruit juices — many of which are marketed and targeted at children. Sugary drinks are loaded with calories and additives that can contribute to childhood obesity and increase the risk of cavities, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other health problems.
Stop buying sugary drinks and limit your children’s liquid intake to water. If your children do not enjoy the taste of water, consider purchasing natural, healthy sweeteners such as limes, lemons, and oranges that can boost the taste.
2. Limit Screen Time
Television shows, movies, video games, and smartphones promote childhood obesity and an inactive, sedentary lifestyle. These mediums often expose children to advertisements that promote junk foods and other modern gadgets that further encourage inactivity and obesity.
Limit your children’s screen time to under an hour a day, especially during the school week, to apply their time toward more productive activities such as homework, chores, and exercise. When you allow screen time, consider having them mute the TV when commercials come on to limit their exposure to influential advertising or play exercise-based video games like dancing, tennis, and boxing games.
3. Be More Active
Establish a block of time every day when your children exercise or spend time outdoors playing with other children. Provide them with fun sports equipment and games that promote physical activity such as kickballs, footballs, bicycles, jump ropes, and Frisbee. Or, have them work toward specific training goals that involve push-ups, pull-ups, and sprinting, then do weekly fitness tests to check their progress.
Children who see their parents exercising are more likely to develop healthy fitness habits they keep as they grow older. So, stay active and involve your children in fun family sports and games, including tag, croquet, and badminton.
4. Limit Sugar and Desserts
Many children and adults get into eating dessert every night after dinner, which promotes obesity. Consider limiting after-dinner desserts to the weekend or just one or two nights a week, and strongly limit daily sugar intake. Sugar can often be found in sodas, sports drinks, fruit juices, and many unsuspecting processed snacks, including crackers, yogurts, condiments, granola bars, and breakfast cereals.
Eliminate sugary candies from the home that your children can conveniently grab, such as lollipops and popsicles, and limit portion sizes on nights they eat dessert. Do not allow your children to consume sugary foods and desserts before lunch and dinner, as this behavior often leaves less room for healthier foods.
5. Make Favorite Dishes Healthier
Nearly every meal can be made healthier in one or more ways, including your children’s favorite dishes such as pizza, hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese. For example, pizzas can often be made or ordered with cauliflower or wheat crust, while hamburgers can be served in a wedge of lettuce or whole-wheat bun without the cheese. There are also dozens of ways to make macaroni and cheese healthier and less fattening, such as replacing some cheese with yogurt or vegetable purees, using whole-wheat noodles, and adding broccoli or spinach.
Start making gradual, healthy changes to your children’s favorite meals and sneak in a higher amount of vegetables into nearly every dish. In some instances, your children may not even notice you’ve modified their favorite foods.
6. Eliminate Processed Snacks
Puddings, flavored yogurts, fruit gummies, pretzels, and cheese crackers are some of the many processed snacks for children that also happen to be extremely fattening. Many of these snacks are loaded with high amounts of sugar, sodium, preservatives, and other unnatural ingredients that contribute to obesity. Eliminate these types of processed snacks from your home and stock up on plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds instead.
Apples, carrots, celery, berries, raisins, and peanuts are examples of healthy foods that are easy to grab and eat on the go. Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are other healthy snacks loaded with protein that can boost your children’s energy levels and help them stay active. If you buy processed snacks for your children, carefully read the ingredients labels and choose products that lack high amounts of additives, including sugar and sodium.
7. Promote Quality Sleep
Lack of sleep and poor quality sleep affects children in the same way it affects adults. For example, sleep deprivation can make your children feel drowsy and tired during the day, making them less active and more sedentary. Poor sleep also causes imbalances in a range of hormones — including in hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin that regulate appetite. Imbalances in hunger hormones can lead to overeating and unhealthy food choices.
Promote quality sleep in your household by making your children go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Make sure their rooms are kept dark throughout the night and that they are not waking frequently due to noises from outside or inside your home. Consider hanging up light- and noise-proof curtains or using a white noise machine to help your children sleep more soundly.
8. Practice Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is the act of focusing on the present moment as you eat, such as chewing each bite of food slowly to savor and appreciate its tastefully. This mindfulness practice prevents people from indulging in unhealthy foods and can even contribute to weight loss. Mindful eating may be a difficult concept for young children to grasp, but there are small steps you can take to have your children eat mindfully.
First, turn off the television during meals. Watching television while eating can lead to overeating, given how your attention is tuned in to the screen and not to your plate. Then, ask your children to identify the ingredients in their meal, including spices and seasonings, which require them to chew slowly and focus on each bite. Encourage your children to take small bites, and engage them in conversation about the meal.
Over time, these practices may help your children develop a healthier relationship with food and reduce their risk for overeating and obesity.
9. Reduce Stress and Boredom
Many people — including children — tend to grab comfort foods when they feel stressed or bored. These individuals may use eating as an outlet when facing problems and difficult situations, as it can provide temporary relief. However, eating to relieve stress and symptoms of mental illness can often increase the risk of obesity and eating disorders that require long-term treatment and therapy.
Communicate with your children every day and take steps to prevent them from feeling stressed or anxious, as these emotions shouldn’t typically plague young children. You can help them with school work and projects and talk to them about problems they may be experiencing at school or in your community, such as bullying and peer pressure. If your children tend to eat out of boredom, introduce them to new activities or hobbies that keep them busy and productive.
10. Evaluate Medication Use
Weight gain and obesity are side effects of many types of medications — including those that children use. Antidepressants, corticosteroids, and birth control pills are examples of medications that can promote childhood obesity. In a 2015 study published in BMJ Open, researchers found that children who are overweight or obese are more likely to use medications for endocrine diseases, central nervous system diseases, and respiratory conditions, including asthma.
Before your child’s pediatrician prescribes any medications, ask about potential side effects, including obesity, and about alternate medications or treatments for your child’s condition that won’t increase the risk for obesity. For example, if your daughter wants to take birth control pills to regulate her menstrual period, ask her doctor about lifestyle behaviors she can implement to regulate her period naturally over time, such as exercising regularly and reducing sugar intake.
Pediatric Services At Lompoc Valley Medical Center
Lompoc Valley Medical Care offers pediatric services for teens and young children, including those who may need help fighting childhood obesity for underlying health problems. Visit our provider page today to make an appointment and learn more about our many available healthcare services for you and your family.