Holiday season is in full swing, with all the indulgences it entails: cookies and candy exchanged among neighbors, big meals with family and parties with friends. While it may be tempting to forget about weight and dietary issues for a few weeks, you might see this time of family togetherness as the best moment to assess your family’s lifestyle and double down on your commitment to helping your children find and maintain a healthy weight.
The prevalence of childhood obesity in the U.S. has risen dramatically in the past several decades. In 2012, over one-third of American children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Unfortunately, obesity tends to “track” throughout life, meaning that its presence at any age will increase the risk of persistence at subsequent ages.
A simple equation
This plain truth holds for children and adults alike: a person gains weight when their energy input—food intake—exceeds their energy output. What’s interesting is that research shows on average, obese children do not consume significantly more calories than their thinner peers. In fact, most obese children demonstrate a slow but steady weight gain over several years. The culprit seems to be a consistent, minor excess intake of only 50 to 100 calories a day (the equivalent of a half to a whole banana), which can lead to a five to 10 pound weight gain over a year’s time.
On the other side of the equation, energy output consists of your child’s basal metabolic rate (that is, the amount of energy you use at rest), the thermal effect of food (that is, the energy required to absorb and digest meals) and your child’s level of activity. Of these variables, activity is the one least influenced by genetic inheritance and therefore the one most easily controlled.
Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on health and well being. In the short term, obese youth are more likely to have pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self esteem. In the long run, these children are statistically more likely to grow up to become obese adults at risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer.
The best way to significantly affect the prevalence of obesity is to prevent it. You and your family doctor should discuss your child’s weight at every well child exam. If your child is overweight or obese, treatment plans should include reasonable weight goals, dietary and physical activity management, behavior modification and family involvement, which may even include weight loss for the parents.
Here are some tips offered by the American Academy of Family Physicians:
- Breastfeed and delay introducing solid foods to reduce the risk of future weight problems.
- Respect your child’s appetite; children do not need to finish every bottle or meal.
- Avoid pre-prepared and sugary foods when possible.
- Limit the amount of high calorie foods kept in the home.
- Provide a healthy diet, with 30 percent or fewer calories derived from fats.
- Provide ample fiber in your child’s diet.
- After age two, serve skim milk instead of whole milk.
- Don’t provide food for comfort or as a reward; instead, consider physical activities such as a trip to the park.
- Don’t offer sweets in exchange for a finished meal.
- Limit the amount of sedentary pursuits, such as watching television.
- Encourage active play; a reasonable daily goal is 20-30 minutes of moderate activity on top of any exercise your child gets during the school day.
Additional mealtime techniques include:
- Eat all meals at the dinner table at designated times.
- Serve food only once before putting it away (no second helpings).
- Take smaller bites, chew food longer and put the fork down between bites.
If your child or family member is overweight or obese, ask your family doctor what you can do about it. Start by following the simple advice presented above and make the coming year the healthiest for your family.
Dr. Lamia Kadir is a board certified family physician in private practice in Austin, a mother of three and runs an anti-obesity campaign at home and at the office.