A number of factors contribute to becoming overweight or obese. Genetics, lifestyle habits, or a combination of both may be involved. In some instances, endocrine problems, genetic syndromes and medications can be associated with excessive weight gain. However, regardless of genetics or health conditions, lifestyle choices play a significant role in determining someone’s weight.
Much of what we eat is quick and easy – from fat-laden fast food to microwave, heavily-processed and prepackaged meals. Daily schedules are so busy leaving little time to prepare healthier meals or to squeeze in some exercise. In addition, portion sizes, in the home and at restaurants, have grown substantially.
Plus, now more than ever life is sedentary – kids spend fewer hours actively playing opting for computers, video games and television entertainment.
“The key to keeping kids of all ages at a healthy weight is taking a whole-family approach,” says Becky Gonter-Dray, RD, CSP, LD, pediatric dietitian at Dayton Children’s. “It’s important that parents ‘practice what you preach’ and be good role models for kids. In addition, get your kids involved by letting them help you plan and prepare healthy meals or choosing active family activities.”
Avoid falling into three common food/eating behavior traps:
1. Don’t reward kids for good behavior or try to stop bad behavior with sweets or treats. Come up with other solutions to modify their behavior.
2. Don’t maintain a clean-plate policy. Be aware of kids’ hunger cues. Even babies who turn away from the bottle or breast send signals that they’re full. If kids are satisfied, don’t force them to continue eating. Reinforce the idea that they should only eat when they’re hungry.
3. Don’t talk about “bad foods” or completely eliminate all sweets and favorite snacks from kids’ diets. Kids may rebel and overeat these forbidden foods outside the home or sneak them in on their own. Teach children the importance of moderation and saving special treats for special events.
Additional recommendations for kids of all ages:
Birth to age 1: In addition to its many health benefits, breastfeeding may help prevent excessive weight gain. Though the exact mechanism is not known, breastfed babies may be more able to control their own intake and follow their own internal hunger cues.
Ages 2 to 6: Start good habits early. Help shape food preferences by offering a variety of healthy foods. Encourage kids’ natural tendency to be active and help them build on developing skills instead of spending too much time watching television or playing computer or video games.
Ages 7 to 12: Encourage kids to be physically active every day, whether through an organized sports team or a game during recess. Keep your kids active at home, too, through everyday activities like walking and playing outside. Limit screen time to less than 2 hours each day – this includes television, computers and video games. Let kids be more involved in making good food choices, such as packing lunch or picking out their own healthy foods at the grocery store.
Ages 13 to 17: Teens like fast food, but try to steer them toward healthier choices like grilled chicken sandwiches, salads and smaller sizes. Teach them how to prepare healthy meals and snacks at home. Encourage teens to be active every day to develop lifelong habits.
All ages: Cut down on TV, computer, and video game time and discourage eating while watching the tube. Also remove electronic devices from your child’s room creating a space dedicated to rest and sleep. Serve a variety of healthy foods and eat meals together as often as possible. Encourage kids to have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, limit sugar-sweetened beverages, drink plenty of water and eat breakfast every day.
If you eat well, exercise regularly and incorporate healthy habits into your family’s daily life, you’re modeling a healthy lifestyle for your kids that will last. Talk to them about the importance of eating well and being active, but making it a family affair will allow these habits to be second nature for everyone.
“It’s also important to involve all of your child’s caregivers in these new habits – whether it’s a babysitter’s house after school or grandma’s house on the weekends,” says Gonter-Dray. “Kids who are developing lifelong habits need consistency and a support system that lets them know they are loved – no matter what their weight.”