July Q&A: Heading off Childhood Weight Problems
by Ben Helgemo, M.D., Pediatrician
Clean your plate. Drink your milk. As parents, we’ve been conditioned to believe that our children must eat heartily and often. Unfortunately, pushing too much of a good thing carries a high price tag. A failure to promote healthy, appropriate habits and portions can lead to obesity, adversely affect the liver and kidneys, as well as increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Dr. Ben addresses questions concerned parents may have on this important issue:
Q: How common is the problem of obesity in children?
It’s a sensitive topic, but as a pediatrician, it’s one I can’t ignore. I’m seeing it with alarming frequency in my patients at younger and younger ages. And, sadly, unless drastic measures are taken, obesity in pre-puberty is difficult to reverse. Even in childhood some kids grow into their weight, but most don’t.
Q: Why is obesity on the rise?
When I was a kid, I primarily drank two beverages: milk and water. Kool-Aid was a treat. Today, most kids consume a steady diet of soda, sports and energy drinks and fruit juice. Our busy, fast-paced lives result in parents hitting the drive-thru more often than the grocery store. Add to that the fact that kids are less active and less supervised and it’s easy to see why the problem of obesity has risen dramatically.
Unhealthy patterns often begin subtly. Kids tend to eat when they’re bored and often complain of being hungry. The truth is that before puberty, kids shouldn’t have an incredible appetite. Some kids get bored or tired and will want to snack all the time. It’s ok to say “No.” I’m worried when a child who is over a year old eats every time food is put in front of them.
Q: What’s a parent to do?
The earlier a parent begins to instill appropriate eating habits, the better. If poor habits have already taken hold, parents have to stop being in denial. The numbers don’t lie: A child with a Body Mass Index (BMI) between five to 85 percent is considered normal with a few exceptions. Between 85 and 95 percent is overweight and above 95 percent is considered obese.
While there’s not a simple answer to this problem, below are some helpful suggestions for parents:
- Limit juice and soda. Further, for children over 12 months, two percent milk is fine. After two or three years old, give skim milk. This one recommendation alone will help children control or lose weight.
- Offer more fruits and vegetables and less high carbohydrate and high fat foods. If kids are eating more good foods, they’ll be less hungry for the bad stuff.
- Deny access. If you don’t buy and provide junk food, your kids will eat less of it.
- Set an example. One of the most powerful ways you can influence your child’s eating habits is to be a good role model.
In the end, kids need to receive the message that it’s not about how they look, but what’s healthy for their bodies. Instilling healthy habits and messages now will benefit them for a lifetime.