When we talk about childhood obesity, we aren't talking about the way a child looks, we're talking about the health concern of obesity: an excessive accumulation of fat that is associated with serious health risks, such as heart problems, cancer, diabetes, and stroke.
This issue has been on the rise for the last 40 years or so. In the U.S. currently, about 14% of 2-5-year-olds, 18% of 6-11-year-olds, and 21% of 12-19-year-olds qualify as obese. Unfortunately, obesity has a strong tendency to continue or "track" into adulthood.
There are definitely genetic contributors to obesity, the remarkable recent increase is explained largely by an increase in physical inactivity (and screen time) and an increase in consumption of calories.
What That Looks Like at Home
Increase in screen time: The biggest and most readily available screen to hit the market, of course, was and is TV. In the 1950s and 60s televisions became more widely available, as did programming for kids. And nowadays screens have gotten more portable, more sophisticated, and more designed to hold our attention.
Unfortunately those screens are impacting our health. Some studies have indicated that for every extra hour of TV a person watches per day, they can expect to gain 1-2% extra in bodyweight.
Increase in caloric intake: While physical calorie-burning activities have been declining, caloric intake has been going in the other direction. There are now so many really, really tasty things to eat and drink!
Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), such as non-diet sodas, fruit juices and waters, sports drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas are all over the place. And with our busy lives, running from work to various kids' activities, sometimes we don't feel we have the time to cook at home, and drive-through's are so convenient.
Convenience helps us overlook the salt, fat, and sugar content—as well as the portion sizes. There aren't too many green vegetables on drive-through menus, and a large soda costs less than a bottle of water.
So What Can You Do About It?
Reducing obesity problems is, to say the least, a tough challenge. Research can point us in the right direction for things we can do at home that actually work (and things that don't!).
First of all, restriction diets alone don't work. Limiting calories or food for yourself or your child will just make you hungry and crabby.
Second, you can't really successfully deal with an obese child unless you also work with the child's parents, who often share the same problem. As parents, our kids are looking to us and learning what "normal" behavior looks like - whatever we do, they will want to do too!
Third, a healthy and regular breakfast has to be part of a good diet. So many people skip breakfast, either because they are busy or because they think it will help them cut calories, but fueling your body and brain at the start of the day will help you make better food choices and eat less throughout the day.
And finally, intelligent calorie management has to be supplemented by a program of regular physical activity. This activity doesn't have to be strenuous! Just getting out of the house and going for a walk, playing at the playground, or playing tag in the backyard are enough to get your body moving and start to create better habits for your whole family.
Watch the video below as Dr. Phelan discusses:
- Why childhood obesity has been on the rise
- What is causing the increase
- How obesity can impact a child's self esteem
- What to say to a child who is feeling low about their weight
- How you can work with your child to get everyone on a healthier path