After years of hearing warnings about the rise in childhood obesity, there seemed to be good news: Instead of increasing, rates of childhood obesity had plateaued in the U.S. But a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests there's still cause for concern. Researchers projected that more than half of today's children in the U.S. will be obese at the age of 35, with half of the prevalence occurring in childhood.
"This news is quite worrisome, on a lot of levels," says pediatrician Natalie Muth, MD, RDN co-author of The Picky Eater Project and member of the Executive Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Obesity. It highlights the fact that the risk for obesity continues throughout childhood, and even kids who are at a healthy weight now are at risk for developing obesity as adults.
It's also alarming for public health. If half the population is obese at 35, chronic health problems associated with obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease, will likely become more prevalent, she says.
Though rates of childhood obesity have plateaued in the U.S, overall global rates of obesity are still climbing, according to new research in The Lancet. The rate of severe childhood obesity continues to increase too, says Muth.
So what can be done? Muth says efforts to teach skills like moderation and listening to hunger and fullness cues should include ALL children, not just those who show signs of excess weight right now, she says. She suggests families take these three steps to help prevent obesity:
1. Avoid sugary drinks including juice. "Don't introduce them, don't keep them in the home," says Muth. "Sugary drink consumption is a strong predictor of later childhood obesity."
2. Eat balanced meals together. "Model what healthy eating looks like at meals," says Muth. "Use small plates, keep screens off, and sit together for at least 20 minutes." (RELATED: 4 Food Resolutions for Happier Meals)
3. Teach kids to listen to their body's hunger cues. Teach them to ask themselves "Am I hungry?" before snacking. If they're not hungry, help them figure out what they need, whether that's an activity like playing a game or talking through a problem.
If you're worried about your child's weight, talk to your pediatrician, who knows your child's health history and growth. But don't focus on weight and numbers with your child. "That can feel stigmatizing to a child, may backfire, and create family discord," says Muth. Focus on health and being healthy instead. Are there changes in nutrition and physical activity that the whole family can make? A united effort not only supports your child but also helps the whole family be healthier.
On a larger scale, Muth says our environment needs to change to support healthier eating and more activity. "It's a rare day that my children are not offered food rewards at school or a junk food snack at an extracurricular event or after-school program. Our kids are constantly exposed to junk food marketing and pressure or cues to eat more," she says. "The environment in which we live have made eating healthfully and being active much more difficult. It's not that we have weaker willpower or a diminished sense of personal responsibility than previous generations."
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.