By Nevine Baligh
The alarming rise in childhood obesity rates is a relatively new global problem. In just a few decades, the rates have increased tenfold in what could only be described as a worldwide epidemic.
According to the World Health Organization, the number of overweight or obese children under 5 years of age in the world increased from 32 million to 41 million from 1990 to 2016. Many of those children are at risk of developing a myriad of health issues in their future if no interventions are implemented, and their number is expected to increase to 70 million by 2025.*
In a relatively short amount of time, society has gone through many changes that have contributed significantly to creating a generally less-than-ideal lifestyle for families. Some of the factors that lead to childhood obesity could include:
Less physical activity: Gone are the days when kids would spend most of their time outdoors, kicking footballs around or cycling around the block. Children are spending more and more time engaging in sedentary activities that don’t require much moving at all. We can safely blame increasing screen-time as the obvious number one culprit.
Availability of processed snacks: Fast food and processed snacks are widely available, inexpensive, and pretty convenient. With the sugar and trans-fat laden treats appealing to children’s taste buds, it’s no wonder that they would rather eat much more of them than any other food. And being nutrient-poor and calorie-dense makes them the unhealthiest food of choice for a growing child.
Poor eating habits: Forty years ago, families would all eat dinner together in the dining room. Today, many families would rather eat absent-mindedly in front of a screen of some sort. Children especially are more likely to overeat this way because they’re too engrossed in what they’re watching to tune in to their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues.
Increase in sugar consumption: While most parents try to limit their children’s consumption of sugar in its obvious forms – like in candy and cookies, it can still sneak into their diets in many more “innocent” looking foods. Breakfast cereals, “natural” juices, and even no-added-sugar products can have a hefty amount lurking inside.
Ballooning portions: Some restaurants and fast food chains popular with families have gradually “super-sized” their meals in order to appeal to consumers over the years, skewing our perception of a well-balanced plate. Children today are far more likely to eat much larger portions than what is recommended by health organizations even if they’re not hungry because that is what they are served.
Prevention and Solutions
Establishing overall healthy habits for kids by giving their bodies what they need to grow is what every child needs regardless of weight. Unless directed by a doctor, weight loss should not be the focus, but rather offering them the best chance at a healthy childhood through better nutrition and lifestyle changes.
Building a better plate: Children need a variety of nutrients from different foods. There’s no such thing as a “perfect plate”, but a focus on fresh fruit and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy fat, various sources of calcium, and lean protein goes a long way in ensuring they get what they need for optimum health. Cutting down on refined carbs, serving veggies with every meal, and adding in more whole-grains and fiber-rich legumes are a few keys to building a wholesome, filling plate.
60 minutes of movement: Current recommendations are for children to get at least one hour of physical activity per day. A mix of different exercises is best, but any kind of activity that gets kids to jump around and get sweaty is enough to reap the health benefits of physical fitness. Different families can create their own fun and unique ways of getting in that kind of extra movement according to their lifestyle and living conditions.
Better eating habits: Even if families find it challenging to eat together at the same time, parents should try to limit or eliminate screen-time during meals and snacks. Kids are actually excellent intuitive eaters, so they are much more likely to eat mindfully if they’re not distracted. There is also no need to ask them to “clean” their plates. Honoring their inherent skill at knowing when they’re hungry enough to eat and when they’re full will help them build a positive, long-lasting relationship with food.
Including kids in meal prep: Kids are much more likely to go for nutritious foods when they’re excited about them. Involving them in the preparation process, such as giving older children the task of making their own lunchboxes, is a good start. Younger children appreciate colorful plates, and can enjoy naming them as they “eat the rainbow”. It goes without saying that healthy meals don’t have to be boring, and just adding a dip of hummus, nut butter or Greek yogurt can make a simple snack of raw vegetables fun and extra appealing to young palates.
The health issue of obesity is complex and multi-faceted; lifestyle and nutrition only play a part in its causes and potential solutions. But undoubtedly, any positive and progressive changes in those areas from childhood can certainly make a difference that should last a healthy lifetime.
Learning about nutrition: Educating children on what their bodies need to function at their best is probably the most important part of this journey. A child is more likely to choose to snack on fruit and nuts more often than cookies when they understand the nutritious value of both. Complete restriction of certain foods and imposing others only works to frustrate both parents and children. It’s better to discuss why healthy nutrition matters instead of forcing the broccoli “because we said so.”
Nevine Baligh is an AFPA certified Nutrition and Wellness Coach who runs Healthy-ish, a nutrition and wellness consultation service. She believes lifestyle changes are the key to a healthier, happier life … with a slice of pizza on the side!
AFPA certified Nutrition and Wellness Coach
Email: [email protected]