As of the latest count by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-fifth of U.S. children and one-third of adults are now overweight or obese. The obesity rate has doubled among children and quadrupled among teens over the last 40 years. More than 40 percent of obese American kids are unaware they have a weight problem. Being overweight increases our kids’ risks of developing just about every major chronic disease on the face of the planet. So no, I am not picking on overweight kids. I am a concerned mom and doctor and the hard truth is that our kids are facing an unprecedented obesity epidemic. This very epidemic is affecting their longevity. Our kids’ generation is expected to have a shorter life expectancy than our own. The primary reason? Obesity.
This is not a problem we can take lightly.
Talking about their kids weight with parents is a touchy topic. I hate having to do it because I don't want anyone to feel badly about themselves. And people often do feel badly about being overweight.
One major problem, demonstrated in a recent study by researchers from the University of California San Diego and Brown University is that it appears that as parents, we are in denial about our own kids’ weight, and because of this, fail to give them the help they need to lose weight. This study surveyed parents of first-time patients at a pediatric obesity clinic, assessing the families’ willingness to help their children lose weight. The patients, ranging in age from 5 to 20 years old, had all been diagnosed as being overweight or obese by their regular pediatricians and referred to the clinic. A full 93.5% of parents correctly recognized that their children were, in fact, overweight or obese – but nearly 30% said they didn’t see their children’s weight as a problem, and assessed their children’s health as “very good” or “excellent.”
According to one of the lead researchers, pediatrician Kyung Rhee, “There are so many kids who are overweight – and so many adults who are overweight – that a lot of parents just don’t recognize it” as a problem.
So even in my medical practice, where parents are coming to me for an assessment of their kid's health, I tread carefully when explaining to parents that their child is overweight. No parent likes to think that perhaps the very nourishment their kids are receiving from us might not be optimal for their health. But if we are going to help our kids live long, healthy lives, we've got to face reality and learn how to stop this potentially deadly crisis in its tracks so our kids aren't the victims.
5 Steps To Prevent + Reverse the Obesity Epidemic in Our Kids
So what can you do to prevent your kids from becoming overweight, and help them to lose weight if they are? The first thing we have to do is get out of our denial and self-consciousness about the problem.
- Take the stigma out of the weight conversation. A lot of us don’t want to talk with our kids about weight because we don’t want to have a negative impact on their self esteem or stigmatize them about food. But being overweight is just as important to talk about as safe sex and sober driving – it's a matter of life and death. So make the weight conversation about healthy eating, not self-esteem or appearance.
- Make healthy eating a family affair. Learn about healthy eating together. Plan meals together, shop and cook together. The data is clear: when healthy eating and weight loss is a goal of the whole family, especially the parents, everyone wins.
- Clean out the fridge and cupboards: Get rid of all “non-food junk” (a.k.a junk food), processed foods, and anything with sugar. Replace your usual meal fare with fresh, healthy, whole food choices and serve snacks such as fresh vegetable sticks and hummus or bean dip, fresh fruit, healthy trail mix, or apples with almond butter.
- Kick the sweet beverage habit: The quickest way to help kids lose weight is to get rid of all juices (some homemade fresh vegetable juice is ok a few times per week) and sodas. Teach them to drink water as their only beverage. You’d be shocked at the amount of sugar in juice – 8 ounces can have as much as 4 or more teaspoons, and most sodas, even the natural ones, have up to 6 teaspoons of sugar per serving. So if you are going to buy juice, use the fresh pressed “healthy” juices in natural food store. And read labels: 5 mg of sugar = 1 teaspoon
- Cut back on screen time: Get kids moving for at least an hour every day after school – afterschool sports or dance classes, a daily long walk, a trip to the playground, jumping rope at home – there are endless creative ways to get kids moving once they are off of the computer, Ipad, and TV. Cutting back on screen time also means cutting back on the millions of dollars worth of food industry advertisements aimed at making our kids addicted to non-food junk!
Additionally, teach your kids to make healthy choices at school. Send lunches from home if possible, and if not, get involved in making school cafeteria options healthier! Talk with teachers and the school about providing healthful snacks – this is a health matter for ALL kids.
And yes, your child may feel a little different or even “left out” if not eating the same “non-food junk” that other kids are having. That's actually ok. Talk about it and talk about why you are making these choices as a family. Allow some space for eating the regular stuff – maybe on special occasions – so that unhealthy foods don't become “forbidden fruit” that your kiddo sneaks when you're not looking. But now is the time to teach your kids that different is ok. “Just ‘cause everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to” is an important life lesson. The same rule will apply to smoking cigarettes, drinking, and a whole lotta’ other things you'll need to talk with your kids about as they get older!
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