Childhood obesity | What can families do?

by Hugo Bravo

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. As kids get ready to go back to school, it’s also a good time to develop better eating habits to avoid unwanted weight gain.
Obesity in children is defined by their body mass index–for–age (or BMI– for–age) percentile. If a child’s BMI–for–age is higher than 95 percent, they are suffering from childhood obesity. If their BMI–for–age percentile is less than 95 percent, but higher than 85 percent, they are considered overweight. There are many factors that contribute to childhood obesity, including eating habits, physical activity levels, sleep routines, and overuse of electronic devices such as phones, video games, and tablets.

Move more, together

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. But remember that this does not mean an hour of non–stop exercise. For example, a ten–year–old could spend 20 minutes playing basketball at recess and then 40 minutes playing football after-school with friends. Those two activities would meet the required 60 minutes of exercise. But if an hour–long gym class consists of 30 minutes of changing, choosing teams, lining up, and your child comes home to an afternoon of playing video games, he would not be active enough for that day.

Activities as a family, such as taking walks before or after dinner, are great ways to get everyone involved in physical activity. Even active chores like washing the car, vacuuming, or raking leaves, can help children reach their 60–minute goal.

Develop healthy eating habits

Start by looking inside your fridge; is it filled with soda, fruit drinks, and flavored milk? If so, replace them with water and low–fat milk. Fruit juice is fine occasionally, but the healthiest way to consume fruit juice is to eat fruit itself. Also, make sure to have healthy snacks on hand, such as low–fat yogurt, peanut butter with celery, and whole grain crackers with cheese.

Healthy eating habits are more than just controlling what foods you eat. Bring your children to the supermarket with you so they can learn what’s good for them and what isn’t. Show them how to pack their own lunch or help with food preparations at home.

As a parent, you are the best role model to encourage better eating habits. If your child sees you eating healthier and enjoying smaller portions, they’ll be encouraged to do so as well.

Set a sleep routine

Kids (and adults) function better throughout the day after a good night’s sleep. Tiredness from lack of sleep lowers energy levels needed for physical activity and can cause one to overeat to make up that energy.

Different age groups need different levels of sleep. Preschoolers need 11–13 hours of sleep per day, including naptime. Children 6–12 years old need 9–12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, and teens 13–18 need 8–10 hours. Stick to consistent sleep hours and patterns, even on weekends and during the summer months, when the longer days can lead to later bedtimes.

Keep screen time in check

Too much time playing video games or browsing the web can lead to poor sleep, weight gain, and random snacking. Turning all screens off an hour before bed is a good way to reduce screentime and the urge to play video games “just 10 more minutes.” Encourage pre–bedtime activities that can help relax and prepare your child to sleep, such as reading, drawing, or journaling.

Facts on childhood obesity

❚ One in five American children suffer from childhood obesity.

❚ One in every four children do not participate in any free–time physical activity per day.

❚ Children that suffer from childhood obesity miss four times more school than children at a normal weight.

❚ Childhood obesity can lead to other, more serious diseases. Overweight children and adolescents have a 52 percent increased risk of asthma. Being obese or overweight is responsible for 45% of children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

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