Promoting Health in an Era of Childhood Obesity

American children are in the grips of an overwhelming obesity epidemic that is sweeping the nation and showing no sign of slowing down.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, since the 1970’s, rates of childhood obesity have tripled. In 2015 and 2016, research determined that roughly 20% of children (ages 6-19) were obese. For context, obesity is simply having “excess body fat” (which varies in amount by age).

For a child who experiences obesity, the immediate consequences include decreased social and emotional health, as well as an increased chance they will experience the following conditions later in life: fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, heart disease, high cholesterol, and orthopedic problems.

As parents, educators and community members, we can make a difference in stymieing the tide of childhood obesity. This blog post will discuss how to do just that.

What are the causes of childhood obesity:

  1.  Lack of Exercise and Physical Activity: With the increased utilization of video games and television, many children are forgoing physical activity and outdoor play. Kidshealth.org reports that older kids and teens need 60 minutes of vigorous exercise daily, while children ages 2 to 5 years old should play actively multiple times a day.
  2. Genetics: Some children are genetically predisposed to obesity.  Their body’s metabolism may be slower than the norm or they may process fat differently.  Genetics cannot be changed altogether, but they can be worked around. Lifestyle habits are passed down one generation to the next.
  3. Poor Nutrition: Too much processed food, sugary beverages, unhealthy simple carbohydrates, as well as bad fats make up a large portion of the American child’s diet.  For children between the ages of 5 and 10, the top five sources of their caloric intake include “whole and chocolate milk, pizza, soft drinks, low-fat milk and cold cereal” (source: eurekalert.org).  A healthier diet for children can be found on the Mayo Clinic Website.  Recommended caloric intake varies by age, but the bulk of the diet for all ages should be fruits, vegetables, and grain.

How can adults promote healthy living to children?

  1. Lead by Example: Research conveys that children imitate adults. They look to them as an example, especially those whom they admire. As a parent or educator, we need to use our valuable time with children in our care to ensure that the habits children are imitating are positive ones. Positive habits include but are not limited to: eating nutritious food, avoiding junk food, making exercise a priority, drinking plenty of water, and practicing good hygiene and self-care.
  2. Shun the idea of a Diet: The word “diet” is largely a negative word in the United States because it makes people think about eating boring food, restricting ones’ self, and overall temporary suffering for the sake of achieving a desired weight.  Once that weight is achieved, the diet is then usually ended.  Children should be taught about lifestyle wellness rather than diets.  Diets are short term and not permanent, while wellness is long term and never ending. Diets are eating and exercise-centered, while wellness encompasses physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental health. Wellness is big-picture and provide kids a larger view of heath.
  3. Make Exercise Fun: Children naturally like to play. At Discovery Days/Kids Connection Childcare Centers we believe in play so much that it is the basis of our education philosophy (play-based learning). Building a fort outside, four-square, racing, and playing soccer are just a few ways you can play with children in your care.  Exercise doesn’t have to be painful, nor should it be!
  4. Be Realistic: Drastic and immediate changes are not needed. Be realistic about the changes you make for yourself and children in your care. There’s no reason to jump to extremes. Be realistic about the possible changes in your life and the children you care for. What can you do now to begin promoting a healthier lifestyle? It may be incorporating more vegetables into lunch and dinner or cutting out desert 4 times a week.  Take small steps towards your goals, they are much more sustainable that way.
  5. Teach your Child How to Manage Stress: Children have stress too, though we often forget this fact.  When both children and adults are stressed, they tend eat unhealthier than usual, and become less active. It’s important that as adults we teach skills associated with managing stress, to ensure the rest of their wellness doesn’t suffer.

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Additional Resources:

Questions to Think About:

  • What are some habits you can change in your own life to be a better healthy role model for the child(ren) in your care?
  • What physical activities would the child(ren) in your care benefit from?
  • What physical activities would the child(ren) in your care enjoy trying?
  • What healthy foods do the child(ren) in your care enjoy, and how can you increase their intake?
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