The statistics on childhood obesity are alarming: according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Unfortunately, I don’t have to search for data to see the increase in childhood obesity; I see its rise firsthand in our clinics every day. Also evident from my day-to-day patient care are the many detrimental health effects of obesity in children and teens.
The good news is that children can more easily change their patterns of behavior than adults, and as we look to all this New Year holds, now is the perfect time to evaluate your family’s health habits.
Let’s start by defining obesity. The Body Mass Index (BMI) scale is the most widely accepted measure for healthy weight ranges. It is calculated by dividing an individual’s weight by their height squared. Your family physician can help you calculate your child’s BMI and will determine whether or not your child falls within a healthy range.
If your child’s BMI suggests that he is outside the healthy range for his age group, your doctor may suggest a plan for getting your child’s health on track. The advice for getting healthy and fit for adults also rings true for children: changing eating habits and increasing activity are the two pillars of a solid plan to get healthy.
Just as the measures to take to get healthy are the same for adults and children, the health effects of obesity are also much the same. Children who are obese are more likely to face high cholesterol or high blood pressure, diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and even certain types of cancers. My own son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a teenager, which is a type of diabetes not caused by obesity, but obesity does complicate its treatment. Since his diagnosis he has taken charge of his health and his destiny by actively making minor lifestyle changes and being more thoughtful about his eating. He has lost 40 pounds over the past two years. I’m a proud Dad!
Alongside the toll obesity plays on a child’s body are the social and psychological issues associated with being overweight in our society; many overweight children will feel ostracized or deal with insecurities. We all want our children to be able to accomplish everything they dream of. We want them to have the confidence to take on the adventures of life. Being overweight or obese can get in the way of our children chasing after their dreams.
So where should you start to get your child’s health back on track? I consulted our Arkansas Children’s Hospital Clinical Nutrition department for suggestions that you and your family can put in place to start 2014 off on the right track:
- Focus on each other at the table - Talk about fun and happy things at mealtime. Turn off the television and take phone calls later. Try to make eating meals a stress-free time. Cook together, eat together, talk together and make mealtime a family time.
- Listen to your child - If your child says he or she is hungry, offer a small, healthy snack - even if it is not a scheduled time to eat. Offer choices by asking questions like this: “Which would you like for dinner: broccoli or cauliflower?” instead of, “Do you want broccoli for dinner?”
- Encourage physical activity - Make physical activity fun for the whole family. Involve your children in the planning. Walk, run and play with your child—instead of sitting on the sidelines watching them have all the fun. Set an example by being physically active and using safety gear like bike helmets.
- Be a good food role model and show by example - Try new foods yourself. Eat vegetables, fruits and whole grains with meals or as snacks. Let your child see that you like to munch on raw vegetables. Describe its taste, texture and smell to your child. Offer one new food at a time and serve something your child likes along with the new food. You can also offer new foods at the beginning of a meal, when your child is very hungry. Try to avoid lecturing or forcing your child to eat.
- Go shopping for food together - Grocery shopping can teach your child about food and nutrition. Discuss where vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein foods come from. Let your children make healthy choices.
The more engaged your family becomes in making healthy choices together, the greater the chance of success your child will have in being healthy and happy. It’s a process that requires self-reflection and honesty as you look at your current choices and commit to making improvements, but the effects of these changes can truly revolutionize the course of your child’s life.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s get up, get moving and commit to fit for our families in 2014!
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids’ medical concerns. If you have a topic you’d like him to consider addressing, email