Childhood Obesity

Dear Mr. Dad: Our kids are within the normal weight range for their age and height, but I’m the first to admit their eating habits are awful. I don’t want them to end up joining the epidemic of obesity. Should I be concerned? What should we do to be sure they avoid becoming overweight?

A: It’s great that you are asking this question now, before a problem develops. Reversing bad habits is always much more difficult than avoiding them in the first place. Childhood obesity is a serious issue that can lead to real health problems, including quite a few that used to be considered adults-only, like diabetes, liver disease, and hypertension.

The best approach is to tackle the issue as a family, not just as something to be forced on the kids. Working to improve the entire family’s diet and exercise habits can lay the foundation for lifelong health for your kids—and that’s a gift they’ll be able to pass on to their own children.

The root causes of the obesity epidemic aren’t much of a mystery. Aside from a handful of rare genetic and/or hormonal problems, excess weight is most often caused by the nasty combination of eating too much and exercising too little. Let’s look at some of the specific risk factors:

  • Eating high-calorie, high fat, high sugar foods on a regular basis. Having a treat once in a while is rarely a problem, but we often act as if every meal is a feast and every coffee break an excuse to load up. Soft drinks and fast foods are among the worst, but not the only, culprits. And watch those portions, especially when you’re eating out.
  • The couch potato. Watching TV and playing computer games is perfectly fine—but when it consumes too much of your kids’ free time, to the exclusion of physical activity, you’ve got a recipe for serious weight gain. Set reasonable limits in your home and insist that screen time be matched with outdoors or sports time.
  • The gene pool. If the branches of your family tree are sagging under the weight of a lot of obese relatives, your child may be predisposed to put on excess weight. A little extra effort can counterbalance this, both in diet and in physical activity.
  • Psychology. Some kids overeat to cope with problems at school, at home, or with self-image. Knowing what’s eating your kids can help you control what’s being eaten by your kids.
  • What’s in the cupboard? Make sure you stock your home with healthy snack and meal choices. You don’t have to go completely granola—in fact, one recent study showed that many “low-fat” granola cereals actually have over twice the fat, sugar, and calories of a high-sugar kids breakfast cereal! Read the labels, especially for saturated fat, calories, and sugar content per serving. Sugary drinks are your single worst enemy. Replacing the case of cola with 100 percent real juice is good first step, but a lot of juice can be just as bad. Get lean beef. Buy baked chips instead of fried. You get the idea. You won’t need to change everything to make a big difference in what goes into your kids.

Most important, set a good example. Seeing you making healthy choices is the best education your kids can have toward a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle.

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