Childhood overweight and obesity is now a national health emergency. Obesity leads to shorter life spans, lower quality of life, and many numerous chronic medical problems, many of which now even begin during childhood. We now fear that the current generation of children might live shorter lives than their parents due to the long-term effects of obesity. However, there is a lot that can be done to address and prevent obesity, and the earlier we're able to start the better. Small adjustments (regarding our approach to food, feeding, physical activity, etc.) in a young child could prevent many future health challenges.
That is not to say that it will be easy, as currently the healthy choice is not always the easiest one, but it is well worth it! It was previously common to think that kids might outgrow or grow into their weight, but now often than not, this is not happening. In fact, over the past two decades obesity rates have doubled in children and tripled among adolescents in the United States. Obesity affects all of our body systems and can lead to potentially serious health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, liver failure, and more. It also can cause psychological stresses associated with children feeling different from their peers, leading to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believes that making small changes early on can prevent a lifetime of complications regarding childhood obesity, and that both parents and pediatricians can take steps to help children maintain and achieve a healthy weight.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
Your pediatrician should monitor your child's weight and rate of weight gain from infancy onwards. Body Mass Index (BMI) and BMI percentile are indicators of how your pediatrician can ensure that your child is at a healthy weight for his or her age, sex, and height. A BMI at or above the 85th percentile falls into the overweight category; a BMI at or above the 95th percentile defines the obese category. These categories are basically risk categories for current and future medical problems and the higher the BMI (above the 85th percentile), the greater the risk.
Infant Growth Charts
The AAP recently endorsed the World Health Organization's infant growth charts. This means that BMI can now be monitored as soon as your child is born. We definitely would not want an infant to lose weight! But, these growth charts can provide more confidence that your infant or toddler is growing well, and so may not need extra formula or supplementation. This can be particularly helpful reassurance if you are concerned that your child is fussy due to not eating enough.
Some children are more prone to gain extra weight because of family history (which can include things like genetics, having a slower metabolism, and family customs regarding the type and amount of food that is eaten), but in almost all cases, making healthy food changes and increasing physical activity can help improve your child's weight.
- Encourage your child to lead an active lifestyle at home, in child care settings, and in school to start them on the path to lifelong health.
- Talk to your pediatrician about ways to develop healthy eating habits that can begin in infancy, such as minimizing or eliminating juice and offering a variety of healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and continuing these habits throughout childhood.
- Early on, encourage your child to eat a variety of healthy foods and allow them to decide when they are full. Don't forget that taste preferences can change over time and it can take your child ten times of trying a new food before he enjoys it.
- Choose nutritious snacks for him, including vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy foods, and whole grains.
- Have him sit at the table and think about turning off the TV. Studies show that children who watch too much TV are more likely to be overweight because:
- TV and screen time take away from time they could be running, jumping, and interacting with other people.
- Kids tend to eat more when watching TV.
- They're often exposed to commercials, leading to cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Also, try to keep mealtimes media/screen-free. With the TV off, meals can be a great time to have family conversations.
- Keeping communication channels open with your children throughout their school years can be very protective.
- Family walks and physical activity are also a great opportunity to talk with your kids.
As a parent, you have an enormous impact not only on your youngster's lifelong food choices, but also on other factors that can contribute to or prevent obesity. Consider leading by example—if you lead a healthy lifestyle, then your child is far more likely to lead one, too.