We all know that far too many children and adolescents weigh more than what's considered healthy. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents are currently obese.
Being overweight or obese, especially during childhood, increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and sleep apnea. It can also lower kids' self esteem and make them vulnerable to teasing or bullying that can wear their emotions down even further.
This week, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared obesity a disease. Praised by the Obesity Society and the American Heart Association, this move is likely to increase access to interventions to prevent and treat this pervasive condition in adults and kids alike.
Calling obesity a disease may also dilute some of its stigma. Summing it up well on Morning Joe, NBC News chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman explained, "Instead of saying I am obese, you can say I have obesity."
Just as there are several environmental and genetic variables that contribute to the onset and maintenance of obesity, there are countless ways—some controversial (including extreme diets, surgery and medications)—to prevent or treat it. Given all the options, what should we parents do to safely and effectively help our children achieve and maintain not only healthier body weights, but more healthful lifestyle habits?
While there's no one-size-fits-all approach that will help all children grow into a healthy body weight, parents can positively impact kids' growth and development by offering them a variety of nutrient-packed foods from all the basic food groups in proper portions, and by making family meals a priority. We can also encourage positive self talk as well as an active lifestyle that includes daily activities like taking a walk, riding a bike, or shooting some hoops and less time sitting down while watching TV or playing video games.
And it's also never too late to make changes in the home to help kids who are already overweight or obese eat and live more healthfully. David L. Katz, MD, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and editor of the journal Childhood Obesity recommends making healthy weight management about love, not about pounds. He says, "The only reason to focus on children's weight is because you love them and want them to be healthy and have the best possible life." He encourages parents to make sure that's the reason for their concern, and to let kids know that. "That way, all related efforts to help children achieve a healthier body weight will be a study in solidarity, rather than conflict," he adds.
Katz also encourages families to make any attempt to improve eating or fitness habits about them, not about the kids. He says, "Families should make eating well and being active a shared priority. It should never be about one person needing to lose weight; instead, it should be about everyone helping one another find health." Katz also says it's vital to involve kids in food preparation and to set an example you want your children to follow.
For more childhood obesity prevention tips, read this report by the Institute of Medicine or these tips from the CDC. To teach children how to eat more healthfully, visit Nutrition Detectives or SuperKids Nutrition. For a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
How do you help your kids achieve or maintain a healthy body weight?
Image of child on scale crying via Shutterstock.com.