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Is Childhood Obesity Shaping Our Future?

We’re raising a nation of supersized kids.

With US obesity rates on the rise in general, children have become especially vulnerable. Childhood obesity now affects about 17% of American kids and teens, which is three times the rate 30 years ago. And sadly, 1/3 of all US children are now considered overweight or obese.

The New Obesity Classification that Affects 5% of US Children

What concerns me even more is a new report released this week by the American Heart Association that has classified a new category of childhood obesity. “Severe” obesity is now affecting 5% of children. This new designation applies to a BMI (body mass index) at least 20% higher than the 95th percentile for their age and gender. To give you a better idea, a 7-year old girl of average height that weighs 75 lbs would be classified as severely obese.

Children headed down this path at such a young age are only being set up for far greater health risks later in life including Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke, cancer, and cardiovascular concerns such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and clogged arteries.

From the early days in my nutrition career at the WIC Food Program in New Haven, Connecticut, I’ve seen the critical role that parents play in a child’s weight. As adults, children follow our example, and the eating habits they form at a young age set a foundation for their food choices and preferences much later in life. I have seen this time and time again with clients who really struggle with the basic concepts of nutrition because of their upbringing.

Good Habits Start at Home

The best thing you can do as a parent is to make your home an “oasis” of healthy eating. Make meal selection, preparation and dining a fun, family event. Focus on fresh foods for meals and snacks and avoid filling your pantry with processed snacks, cereals and sweets. When you do buy “convenience” items, always watch the label for high fructose corn syrup and high sugar content.

Take your kids to the farmer’s market or help them grow their own fresh fruits, veggies or herbs. Exposing kids to a variety of foods (yes, even Brussels sprouts) at a young age can not only provide extra nutritional benefits, but will also expand their palate for life.  This article provides some great ideas to get the conversation started in your house.

And, never forget that little eyes are on you! Evaluate your diet and use this as a way to give your eating habits a tune-up too.

Turn Off The TV and Get Moving!

It’s seldom you see children playing outside these days; they’re all inside watching television or playing video games which is only contributing to the problem.

New research published September 9 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics studied 121 families with overweight children who all slept in a room with a TV. In the intervention group, families received in-home counseling about healthy habits, and children cut down their TV time by one hour a day and increased their sleep by a half hour each day – and they reduced their BMI by 20%!  The children in the control group continued to gain weight, increasing their BMI by 20%.

Start encouraging daily physical activity – spend time really playing together! Go to the park, walk the dog, ride bikes through the neighborhood or play a game. If you’re active, your kids will follow.

Encourage a Positive Relationship with Food

Last but not least, never take a negative approach to dealing with your child’s weight or eating habits by ridiculing them or putting them down.  Weight struggles can be especially damaging on a child’s self esteem and can cause emotional eating issues and eating disorders that last far beyond the childhood years. From early on, avoid using food as an unnecessary soothing method or reward, and remember to always encourage a positive relationship with food.

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