Childhood Obesity and What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Make Healthy Choices

Every parent wants their child to be healthy and happy, but, in the United States, one in five children is overweight. There are many reasons why there is such a gap between our good intentions and reality including nutritional food deserts, unhealthy food industry, and poor social norms. Parenting practices may be the most commonly criticized culprit, but given our culture of unhealthy life habits, it is extremely difficult to set a good example for our kids.

Problems Associated with Childhood Obesity

It can be difficult to determine if your child is overweight because children are evaluated using a different scale than adults. It may be hard to distinguish between “baby fat” and excess body weight, so the easiest way is to merely ask your pediatrician.

If the doctor does conclude that your child is obese, you should understand the potential health risks. These may include

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Joint problems
  • Bone fractures
  • Early onset of puberty
  • Asthma
  • Sleep apnea

Many of these serious health issues are more likely to develop in adulthood, but the number of cases in children has been growing in recent years because of the rising number of obese children in the U.S.

Many obese children may be the target of bullying which can detrimentally affect their psychological wellbeing. Bullied children may develop poor self-esteem or depression.

Perhaps the greatest issue among overweight children is that these health problems could continue into adulthood which could negatively impact their quality of life or life expectancy.

Why Childhood Obesity Is Increasing in the U.S.

There are many factors that promote childhood obesity, the most obvious is of course poor food choices. Many families rely on empty calories from frozen meals, salty snacks, and sugar-rich desserts to satisfy their hunger. This contributes to a habit of eating lots of calories with little nutritional value.

The other major risk factor for childhood obesity is a more sedentary lifestyle. A lack of exercise due to more hours spent in front of a TV, monitor or phone screen is dramatically raising the risk of obesity among American children.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also an important factor. One study published in JAMA found a 9 percent rise in obesity among children from 5 to 11 years of age since the pandemic has started. The trend is linked to lockdowns that have limited physical activity and access to healthy meals.

What Parents Can Do

It doesn’t take a massive overhaul of your family lifestyle to help your child maintain a healthy weight. Make changes in slow, incremental steps so that you and your kids can ease into a healthier way of life.

  • Positive reinforcement—children with weight issues need emotional support that includes acceptance and encouragement. Do your best to maintain open lines of communication so that your children may come to you with questions or concerns about weight.
  • Set an example—kids often mimic the behavior of parents, so if you are eating healthy, they will often follow suit. Remember to involve your kids in the shopping and food preparation process so that they understand why you make the choices that you do.
  • Don’t use food as a reward or punishment—if your children begin to perceive food as a reward, they may begin to binge on certain foods to feel good about themselves. Withholding food may also encourage overeating if they fear hunger.
  • Eliminate some fats—a good way to reduce calories in your child’s diet is to cut back on unnecessary fats like dairy products, poultry skin and fatty meats. You should retain healthy fats like those found in nuts, fish, and avocado.
  • Snack healthy—it is far too easy to fall into the habit of snacking in an unhealthy way. Instead of eating a salty or sweet snack, encourage your child to try fruits, nuts, or vegetables. It is a good idea to put healthy alternatives in easy reach.
  • Exercise together—it can be difficult to find time in your busy schedules to share a run or workout, but it is important that your kids see you making exercise a priority. Not only will they derive physical benefits like burning calories and enhanced strength, but if you emphasize fun, they will begin to associate working out with enjoyment.
  • Good sleep habits—one of the most misunderstood relationships is between sleep and obesity. Studies show that lack of sleep promotes overeating; your body naturally tries to compensate its exhaustion with extra calories.
  • Schedule meals and snacks—it can be difficult to stick to a meal schedule, but it will greatly help your child if they can count on nourishment at specific times of the day. This behavioral conditioning will help prevent unhealthy urges at unscheduled times.
  • Portion control—you shouldn’t starve your child, but you can closely monitor the number of calories that they consume. It is important to apply the same portion control standards to everyone in your family, so that your child doesn’t feel singled out—which can produce just as unhealthy feelings about food.
  • Limit screen time—one of the greatest threats to a child’s health is a sedentary lifestyle. Having a TV in their bedroom or allowing hours on their phone can instill bad habits. You should do your best to limit their time in front of a screen of any kind.
  • Don’t force your child to eat—many parents mistakenly believe that it is a good idea to force their child to clean their plate, but studies show that this can override their natural instinct to stop eating when full.
  • Stock your home with healthy foods—if your kitchen is filled with unhealthy foods, it will tempt your family to indulge in bad habits. This allows parents to set a bad example for kids. Even if your child obeys your instructions not to eat unhealthy items, once they are allowed to, they will likely overindulge because the temptation has psychologically become so overwhelming.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.