Here are some staggering statistics: Back in 1980, the amount of American children (aged 6-11) that were obese was around 7%. Just 8 years ago? That number was up to 18% (almost one in five). Recent measurements have now shown that around 33% of children in the United States can be classified as overweight or obese. That’s shocking!
What has caused such a spike in childhood obesity?
There are a number of factors that can be linked to the increase of children being more obese or overweight in recent years. These factors can be a combination of any of the following:
- Lifestyle (physical activity, influence of peers encouraging activity, etc.)
- Environment (community health & wellness, healthy school lunch availability)
- Education (cooking, parent’s eating habits, understanding how to make healthy choices)
- Availability (ease to acquire healthy foods)
- Excess (increased caloric and sugar intake, and portion sizes)
Sadly, these factors can cause issues in many other aspects of a child’s life, such as emotional well-being, self esteem, social interaction, depression, and much more. Children that are most at-risk are those that consume calorie dense foods, rather than nutrient dense foods. Quality of calorie intake is much more vital than quantity of calorie intake, which is why health professionals recommend eating a wide variety of whole foods rather than overly processed calorie-dense meals.
What can I do to prevent or reverse childhood obesity?
With any change, it’s best to take small steps for prolonged results. Remember, there will be an adjustment period at first. If your child is used to having a scoop of ice cream as a reward, swapping that for apple slices is going to be an unwelcome change (at least at first).
Sugar is a huge part of the problem. Although you may have a head start by not be allowing your child sugary cereals, desserts, or sodas, hidden sugars can also be found in many so-called “health” foods such as yogurt and granola bars. Read the labels of the foods you and your children consume and see if sugar is within the top three ingredients. If so, you and your family could be consuming more sugar than you think!
Wean them off sugar slowly with a few easy tricks:
- Dilute fruit juice with water, each week adding a little more water and a little less juice to their cup.
- Mix sugary vanilla or fruit yogurt with half plain unsweetened yogurt, upping the amount of plain yogurt at the same rate as the juice/water ratio.
- Mix regular milk into chocolate milk.
My kids hate the taste of vegetables! How do I encourage them to eat more?
These are some techniques you can apply to encourage picky eaters to begin loving to eat more vegetables.
- Prepare vegetables in different ways.
Try roasting veggies in the oven to bring out their natural sweetness, adding handfuls of spinach or kale to a milkshake-style smoothie (that still contains fruit, and some low-sugar vanilla protein powder), or blend them into a soup. Get creative however you can!
- Get the kids involved.
Children enjoy being part of the preparation process. Give them tasks such as snapping off the ends of green beans, tearing up lettuce, peeling carrots, or mashing up avocados. Even joining a community garden where kids can pick their own veggies will get them excited and more likely to try different foods.
- Keep everything healthy easy to grab, and everything else out of reach.
Put vegetables at “kid level” in the refrigerator, out of drawers within eyesight, and pre-sliced and portioned in small baggies so that they’re ready to grab. Put any sweets in high shelves or harder-to-access locations.
- Lead by example!
If you want your children to make healthier food choices, you’ll need to be willing to change your own habits as well. Start eating more vegetables with each meal, and your kids will follow suit!
Can’t I just bribe my kids to eat what I want them to?
Sure, if you want to make more work for yourself! The old strategy of “if you finish your vegetables you can have dessert” may be a tempting quick-fix, but it does not work for long term results. Neither does pushing kids to clean their plates (which can lead to poor portion control understanding down the road), or strict rules for foods that are “good” or “bad”.
Better ways to encourage kids to eat healthier foods now and in the future:
- Serve them new and exciting varieties of fresh, unprocessed foods so that they never get bored.
- Rather than ask them to clean their plate, serve smaller portions and let them stop eating if they’re not hungry anymore.
- Make meal time a family affair, and encourage conversation and slow eating.
- Allow them to choose which vegetable they’d like to eat with each meal (empower them to make their own decisions).
- If truly determined, keep unhealthy choices completely out of the house. If sugary, processed foods are inaccessible, the whole family can only turn to healthy options.
- Involve your kids with meal planning and prep.
There are many ways that children can be influenced by advertising, or through temptation at school or by friends. However, you can do your best to control habits within your home by taking the lead as a parent and following these tips. The work you put in now will help them to develop healthy habits well into their future!
[Credit: Andrews, Ryan. “Nutrition for Kids: Helping Children Get Off to A Good Start.” Precision Nutrition.]
[Credit: NCBI Research. “Childhood Obesity: Causes and Consequences.” 2015.]