Tackling the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

candy and childhood obesity

Childhood obesity rates have been rising steadily over the past 40 years.  In fact, rates have tripled since the 1970s.  Currently, 1 in 5 children are classified as obese.  Obesity is often directly related to serious health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.  As parents, we can support our children’s health by working to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic.

But before going any further, we need to talk about what we mean by obesity.  We all know and understand that taller children have a higher goal weight than shorter children.  And expected proportions do vary with age as children often lean out when they start moving beyond the toddler years.  Boys and girls also grow at different rates.  The tool your pediatrician uses to determine obesity is the BMI curve.

BMI (or Body Mass Index)

Measuring by BMI is by no means perfect, but it does take into account your weight based on height.  A “normal” BMI falls between the 5% and 85%.  So if your 8-year-old daughter is at the 75% of BMI, that means that in 100 little girls born the same day as your daughter, yours has a BMI higher than 75 of them.  If your kid’s BMI dips below 5% they are considered underweight.  Between 86% and 94% is considered overweight. 95% and over are considered obese.

Why does it matter?

When approaching things like weight, it is important to understand that the classification of obesity is NOT a judgment of appearance and worth.  It is very important to keep the conversation focused on health and not on appearance. I often find we as a society tend to shut down with these talks and become very defensive.  And although this is a totally normal response to the feeling of discomfort, it can cripple our ability to talk about meaningful change.

The reason to look at obesity is that having a BMI >95% drastically increases your risk of serious health related conditions.  Diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, and joint problems are common medical complications.  Poor self-esteem, increased risks of depression, and becoming a victim of bullying are among the mental health risks.  It is a diagnosis that can affect a child in literally every aspect of their life.

Causes of Obesity

In general, obesity happens when you take in more energy from foods and drinks than your body uses.  But there are many factors that make this an oversimplified explanation.  Things such as genetics, metabolism, activity level, sleep quality, and habits around food all contribute.  You can read more about causes in Obesity Facts from the CDC.

Genetics

We’ve all heard the saying “Apples don’t fall far from trees.”  This is definitely true when it comes to weight and metabolism.  There are some families who seem to be able to eat whatever they want and stay lean and healthy.  Where other families struggle to keep the pounds off.  Unfortunately we are stuck with our genetics.  We need to be aware of it and understand that it is a contributor.  But then focus on the stuff that we CAN change.

Metabolism

Another unwelcome truth for those of us who may struggle with maintaining a healthy weight is that some folks burn more calories just by breathing than others of us.  And metabolism can change with age.  The number of calories needed just to maintain decreases as we age.  There is an interesting chart Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level on the health.gov website.  As a woman in her 40s (shh, don’t tell) I’m not a huge fan of this chart or this truth.  But clearly my approval is not necessary… haha.

Community

Another aspect of health is the community we live in.  Remember when we were kids and it was normal for children to run around outside for hours each evening playing with their neighbors? This is not the world most of us live in anymore.  The community we live in can influence everything from diet to activity level.  People who live in a community that puts an emphasis on healthy diet and exercise are more likely to have success raising kids who buy into that culture.  Often times it is as simple as what is “normal.”  We can’t always easily change where we live.  But we can be aware of how it may impact our habits.

Sleep

Did you know that not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can affect your weight?  Although scientists are still working on figuring out the nitty-gritty on this one, there is clear evidence that an association exists between obesity and not enough sleep.  Sleep deprivation can cause spikes in your stress hormone cortisol.  There is also evidence that it can spike ghrelin (hormone that makes you hungry) and suppress leptin (hormone that makes you full).

Combine this unfortunate biochemistry with the fact that if you’re tired you are less likely to exercise and you can see how the consequences can add up over time.  However, unlike the last 3 things we’ve discussed leading to obesity, sleep is something you CAN control.  So get those sleep habits started for both you and your sweet kiddos.  If you’re not sure where to start, read Healthy Sleep Habits for School.  Unsure of how much sleep you should be aiming for?  This article by the Sleep Foundation should help.

Eating behaviors

What are your fall-backs in your home?  It wasn’t till about a year ago that my husband and I realized that our own fall-back “comfort foods” were adding to our weight issues.  And that if we didn’t start making changes, our kids were going to have the same issues.  Pastas, rice, sweets, baked goods, and BREAD!!  We’re still working thru it, but we’ve made sustainable strides in the past year in breaking our sugar issues.

What are the fall-outs in your own home?  Take an honest appraisal even though it may hurt.  Does your family regularly partake in sodas or sweetened drinks like juice or kool-aid?  What about salty snack foods like chips and crackers?  Sweet stuff like candy, ice cream, or chocolate?  Do you eat fast food more than once or twice a month?  Do you often go back for seconds or thirds with meals?  If you’re not sure, write down everything that is consumed in your house for a couple of weeks.  You have to know where the bad habits live before you can work to change them.

Activity behaviors

How active is your family? How active are you? We know that active parents tend to raise active kids.  Do your kids get anywhere near the “hour of play a day” recommendation?  Or is there a lot of sitting and electronics?  What activities can you do as a family to improve the entire family’s health?

How you can help

Knowing that there is a problem is the first step in creating a solution.  Even if you or your children are not classified as obese, setting up healthy habits can only be seen as a positive. So let’s roll up our sleeves and help our kids navigate the world.

Encourage Activity

Explore ways to get your kids (and you) out and moving.  Take a walk, go for a hike.  Go on a bike ride.  Whatever it is that you choose to do though, do it often and as a family.  Consider setting minimum activity for the day before allowing children to get on electronics.

Cut out the junk

Carefully evaluate your fridge and pantry.  Do you have fruits and veggies available to snack on?  Is there junk food readily available?  The very simple truth is that they can’t eat it if it’s not available.  The other simple truth is that they will eat what you offer if they’re hungry enough.

So provide healthy options.  Cut out the cookies, crackers, chips, and sweets for the entire family. And if they don’t want the healthy stuff for snacks?  That’s fine.  But they can wait for dinner.  Lifestyle changes take time and Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Hang in there and be patient.  This isn’t about weight loss, it’s about building a healthy foundation for our kids to build on as they grow and eventually leave our nest.

Don’t drink your calories

Make sure your kiddos are getting plenty of water each day.  Cut out the sodas and juices. If you have to, start with the sugar-free flavored waters and work towards plain water.  You have to start somewhere.  Limits the sweet drinks to special occasions.  Be a good example and let them see you do the same.

Make sure they’re getting good sleep

Take a good look at how much sleep your kids are getting.  If it is consistently falling short, it’s time for a change.  What things can you do to encourage more sleep?  What days can bedtime be moved earlier?

Start the talks early and have them even if this isn’t an issue for your family.  We all have our own battles to fight and we need to all support each other.  Let’s make a healthy lifestyle attainable for all families.  Let’s make being healthy the new norm.  It’s time to start the conversation and support each other.  Look for more posts coming up on this topic in the weeks to come.

Author: Dr. Jenny Seawell

Dr. Jennifer Seawell is a board certified pediatrician currently practicing in Tennessee. She is married with 2 daughters aged 7 and 13.

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