We are seeing more children at an unhealthy weight these days.  The statistics are disheartening but need to be recognized to help combat the epidemic.  According to the CDC, more than 12 million children and adolescents aged 2-19 years old are obese.  The good news is that obesity in children age 2-5 years has significantly decreased over the past 8 years.  Obesity is defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. Overweight is when a child’s BMI is at or above the 85th percentile but below the 95th percentile.  Your pediatrician will view your child’s growth chart over the years to look for trends in weight. Ask to see your child’s growth chart during their next visit. Obesity poses many serious health threats such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and sleep apnea as well as low self-esteem and depression.   It is important for parents to be aware of their child’s weight.  Consult your pediatrician to address any concerns and make changes if necessary.

What causes Obesity?

Obesity can be caused by poor eating habits, lack of exercise, or heredity.  Children who have parents who are overweight or obese are more likely to have a weight problem.  A child that is obese by the age of 12 has a 75% chance of being an obese adult.  This is why it is critical for parents to ensure their children lead a healthy lifestyle beginning at birth.

Healthy Eating

As parents we are in control of what our children eat for many years.  Parents provide the eating environment and determine when and what foods will be served.  Children will control if they will eat or not and how much they eat. By providing balanced and portion controlled meals and not allowing food to be eaten anywhere other than at the table you can help ensure your children are eating in a healthful manner and building healthy habits.

  • Use a smaller plate to help reduce portions.
  • Refrain from putting pots/plates of food on the table and instead make a plate at the counter and take it over to the table to eat. This can help keep you from grabbing more food just because it is in front of you and not because you are hungry.
  • Children need to learn to regulate their intake by eating when they are hungry and stopping when they are satisfied.
    • Encourage your children to eat their food slowly and to wait at least 10 minutes before getting more. It takes 20 minutes for your brain to register that your stomach is full.
    • We should eat to the point of satisfaction, not to the point where we cannot possibly take another bite of food. Therefore, the age old saying of “clean your plate” should be thrown out.  There is nothing wrong with having leftovers.

Build a Healthy Plate

If you have not seen the new MyPlate recommendations I encourage you to visit choosemyplate.gov with your children.  This is a great way to promote healthy eating and teach your children about nutrition.  Using the plate method your meals should consist of the following:

Fruits and Vegetables - fill ½ your plate with these nutrient packed foods

  • Fresh or frozen fruits and veggies
  • Dried fruit
  • Canned fruit in its own juice
  • If you purchase canned vegetables make sure to rinse them well to decrease the sodium

Lean Protein - ¼ of your plate; about 3 ounces per meal

  • Skinless chicken and turkey
  • Lean ground beef
  • Pork tenderloin
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Peanut butter
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans
  • Tofu

Grains - ¼ of your plate; make at least half your grains whole - look for 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat on the label

  • Brown rice, wild rice, white rice
  • Quinoa, couscous, barley
  • Pasta
  • Bread, tortillas, bagels, crackers
  • Pancakes, waffles, muffins- better to make these items from scratch

Low Fat Dairy

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt

Avoid Extra Fat and Sugar

  • Limit sauces, gravies, salad dressings, sour cream, and other toppings. Look at the nutrition facts panel to see what the serving size is.
  • Use cooking spray instead of oil or butter.
  • Stick to water and milk for beverages. Limit or avoid juice, soda or sweetened beverages.
  • Limit your intake of chips, cookies, cakes, pastries, ice-cream, candy, etc. as these foods provide little nutritional value.

Be Active

Children should be physically active at least 60 minutes every day.  If your child is not currently participating in sports or exercising find activities that they would enjoy doing.  Taking a walk as a family after dinner each night is a great way to get the whole family moving.  Television and computer time should be limited to no more than 2 hours a day.

Talking with your child about their weight can be a difficult thing to do. We want to avoid harming their self-esteem and feelings of depression.  Therefore, do not single out an overweight child; everyone in the family should be eating in a healthy manner.   I would encourage you to focus on talking to your children about healthy eating rather than the number on the scale or how they look.  Teaching them what foods provide the nutrition they need to grow appropriately and why high fat, high calorie, sugary foods and beverages are not good for the body can help lead the path to a healthy lifestyle.  You can also teach your children how to read food labels to find nutritious foods and learn about proper portion sizes.  Childhood is a time of building life-long healthy habits, so be a positive role model and raise healthy kids.

By Rachel Sestrich, RD, LD, CDE