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Most children are not obese, but fears about the obesity “epidemic” have increased with good reason. According to Renee Porter, obesity clinical nurse coordinator at Children's Hospital Colorado, portion sizes have nearly tripled in the last 20 to 30 years, kids often drink too many sugar-sweetened beverages, recess and physical education have drastically decreased in schools, and kids eat out more than ever before.
To avoid the serious, often lifelong health risks associated with childhood obesity, parents should focus on prevention. “Parents should focus on being positive with regards to making changes in their homes” says Porter. “The important thing is for families to feel empowered and confident.”
Nancy Krebs, MD, director of the clinical nutrition program at Children's Hospital Colorado adds, “Parents should be roles models with regards to the food choices that are made and provide encouragement to their kids. Children will follow the examples that their parents set.”
1. Increase parental involvement at school and at home
2. Keep it predictable
There may be no better time to focus on prevention than early in the school year, when parents re-establish routines. Setting regular schedules for healthy eating and physical activity is important for children, especially young children, because they are more likely to adopt them as habits.
According to Dr. Krebs, children respond well to the predictability of regular schedules because it makes them feel secure.
3. Eat the right breakfast
Children need the right kind of energy to sustain their rigorous learning schedules. Skipping breakfast leaves children with an empty stomach and low on energy, but eating the wrong breakfast can be just as bad.
Porter warns that pastries and sugary cereal don’t make children feel satisfied and do not provide adequate energy for a full morning of school. Porter advises that children should eat a breakfast high in protein and fiber and low in sugar.
4. Eat at home
Eating out can expose children to unhealthy food choices and inappropriate portion sizes. Krebs says that children who eat at home are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables than children who eat many of their meals at restaurants.
5. Keep it small
Children do not need to eat as much as adults, but parents often feed them as though they do.
“Portion sizes are as much as three times larger now than they were twenty years ago,” says Porter, explaining that parents often forget the variances in portion sizes for children of different ages, genders and overall activity level. “I often have to remind parents that a two-year-old needs a different portion size than a 15-year-old.”
Children often consume more when they eat unhealthy food. Often this food is high in simple carbohydrates (like sugar) and fat, which makes them tasty but high in calories. Simple carbohydrates do not provide the same sense of satisfaction or fullness as healthy foods, which means that children may eat more to fill up.
6. Lose the soda
“Twenty years ago, most five-year-olds didn’t drink soda on a regular basis,” states Porter. “Most kids who drink sugar-sweetened beverages will drink an excess of 200 calories a day.” These calories are in excess of the daily needs of most children.
Both Porter and Krebs note that the problem extends beyond soda to include any sugar-sweetened beverage, including fruit juice drinks. Most fruit drinks contain 10 percent juice and 90 percent water and sugar. Unless children drink 100 percent juice, it is no better than drinking soda as it is all sweetened with sugar.
7. Eat your fruit, don’t drink it
Children who drink fruit juice instead of eating a whole piece of fruit often end up consuming more calories. "Solid fruit fills children up more than juice, contributing to an overall feeling of satiety,” explains Krebs.
8. Play outside
“Studies have shown that kids who are more fit do better in schools,” says Porter. She and Krebs both advise parents to promote physical activity by encouraging kids to play outside. This can include any activity, like biking or hiking with the family, but can also include simple outdoor exploration. The important thing is that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. For children more than adults, this is usually divided into many short bursts of activity.
“Outside, children explore and venture actively, engaging their senses and their curiosity,” adds Jeffrey Dolgan, MD, senior psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado. Dolgan explains that allowing kids to play outside, especially with other children, teaches them about turn taking, listening, cooperation, following rules and independence.