America’s youth are growing…wider, that is. Over the past 30 years, the number of overweight children in the United States has increased dramatically. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds and 15 percent of 6- to 19-year-old children in the U.S. are overweight. In fact, being overweight is now considered the most common nutrition related problem among American children.
Carrying excess weight as a child can have long-lasting effects. Because eating and activity patterns are often rooted in childhood, there is an increased likelihood that overweight children will become overweight adults. Therefore, they will be more susceptible to several chronic health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain types of cancers. Being overweight as a child also can have psychological consequences. Overweight children may have lower self-esteem, poor body image and feelings of isolation from peers.
For children who are overweight, weight loss diets generally are not the best approach. Restrictive diets may not provide enough energy and nutrients needed for normal growth and development. Rather, the goal should be to maintain the current weight while the child continues to grow in height. To help achieve this goal:
- Respect your child’s appetite. Children do not need to finish every bottle or meal.
- Focus on good health. Encourage and model healthy and positive attitudes toward food and physical activity without emphasizing body weight.
- Involve the whole family so that the overweight child does not feel singled out. Work to gradually change the entire family’s eating and physical activity habits.
- Avoid labeling foods "good" or "bad." All foods in moderation can be part of a balanced and healthy diet.
- Serve sensible portion sizes. Large portions may encourage overeating. Children can always ask for more if they are still hungry.
- Stock the kitchen with healthy, lower calorie snacks such as raw vegetables, fresh fruit, low-fat milk and whole-wheat crackers.
- Do not provide food for comfort or as a reward. Also, do not provide sweets in exchange for a finished meal.
- Involve children in planning, shopping and preparing meals. Use these opportunities to teach children about good nutrition and encourage them to try new healthier foods.
- Advocate physical activity. Make physical activity a daily family affair – go on walks, bike rides or hikes together. When parents are active, there is better chance that their children will also be active.
- Set time limits on watching television, playing video games and working on the computer. Reducing sedentary activities helps increase physical activity.
For additional information, consult your family doctor or a registered dietitian. It is important to make sure that your child’s nutritional and developmental needs are still being met while taking action to address weight issues.