September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, shining a light on a serious issue in the United States. About 20% of American kids and teens, ages six to 19, are at an unhealthy weight, according to the CDC. The prevalence of obesity in kids more than tripled from 1971 to 2020, according to the American Heart Association.
Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on health and well-being. The best way to prevent your child from these potential problems is through healthy lifestyle habits, including nutritious eating and physical activity, which can lower their risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases.
Potential impacts of childhood obesity
There are potential immediate health risks to childhood obesity:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Teenage girls may experience irregular menstrual cycles.
- Some children also run the risk of developing sleep apnea. If left untreated, the trickle-down effect of sleep apnea could impact a child’s quality of life. For example, problems with a good night’s rest can impact someone’s daily behavior, their energy level, their ability to learn at school, participate in activities, etc.
- Childhood obesity doesn’t just affect physical health. Children and teens who are at an unhealthy weight may develop a poor self-image and self-esteem.
- Overweight teens may face discrimination that can impact their social life. A teenager with obesity may feel less likely to try new activities or seek them out. For example, trying out for sports teams or putting on a swimsuit. Self-imposed isolation can contribute to psychological issues including stress and depression.
There are also potential long-term impacts of childhood obesity:
- Higher cholesterol levels; This risk is increased in children with a family history of high cholesterol.
- It is recommended that all kids 9-11 years old, and teens and young adults 17-21 years old, get tested for high cholesterol, especially if they are overweight. Children who have obesity may be tested for high cholesterol more often, according to the CDC.
- Identifying and treating children with elevated cholesterol could protect them from developing cardiovascular disease when they are older.
- Children with obesity can also develop a non-alcoholic fatty liver, which, if left untreated, can lead to chronic liver disease.
How to encourage healthy eating habits
Genetics and family lifestyle play a role when it comes to childhood obesity prevention and treatment. Parents help their kids maintain a healthy lifestyle when they eat healthy themselves. Educating kids on how to eat a well-balanced meal is the first step in creating that habit for a child. Here are some additional steps parents can take to ensure a healthy diet for their kids:
- Eliminate sugary drinks
- Excess sugar without a well-balanced diet can lead to unintended weight gain and childhood obesity. One of the simplest things that can go a long way in a child’s health is eliminating sugary drinks. The current recommendation among pediatric medical professionals is to not give babies any juice during their first year.
- For older children, soda drinking and sports drinks contribute to most of the intake of those sugary drinks. Cutting out these beverages can significantly impact kids and teens when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight.
- Reimagining the food pyramid
- The concept of the food pyramid has changed. Decades ago, the basis of the food pyramid was mostly carbohydrates, which is no longer the recommendation. Instead, the US Department of Agriculture has developed the My Plate initiative. Instead of a pyramid, My Plate gives you examples of how many fruits and vegetables should be eaten each day. For example, a plate should be divided into quarters, with fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins filling the majority of the plate, and served with a glass of milk. This introduces kids to a well-balanced variety of healthy foods.
It is also important to talk to your children and learn more about the foods they like. Teach them about the foods they need for their growing bodies. Find ways to make sure they have the knowledge and ability to eat healthy and tasty foods at every meal.
Exercise is a key factor in preventing childhood obesity and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Medical professionals always recommend exercise. However, this does not always have to be in the form of an organized sport. It could be yard work, housework or putting on music and dancing. Be sure to vary activities to prevent boredom.
- Reducing a child’s screen time and encouraging them to play outside can help too. Decreasing screen time and encouraging 60 minutes of physical activity will improve your child’s health.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If your child is struggling with obesity, schedule an appointment with a pediatrician. Ascension Wisconsin pediatricians can assess where your child is at in their health journey and offer a variety of options for next steps. Ascension Wisconsin also offers medically supervised weight-loss programs for kids, if you choose that is the right option for your child.
Margaret M. Hennessy, MD, is an Ascension Medical Group pediatrician. She provides care for infants, children and teens.
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