Childhood obesity has become a highly discussed topic in recent decades, as its prevalence has increased at a worrisome rate. According to the CDC, about 17 percent of children aged 2–19 are considered obese. Obesity in children can be defined as having a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile in gender-specific, BMI-for-age growth charts. It’s easy to make the assumption that childhood obesity is directly caused by an excess intake of calories, but the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) I, II and III show no corresponding increase in calorie intake as obesity rates have climbed. Nutrition and food choices certainly play a role in weight and growth patterns in children, but they are not the only reasons children are becoming obese. Also at play are socioeconomic factors, physical inactivity, ethnicity and genetics, to name a few.
More concerning than obesity itself are the long-term health consequences attached, such as increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This can be a very sensitive issue, but there are several lifestyle and nutrition interventions that can be implemented to prevent and reverse obesity in children. In addition to visiting the pediatrician, check out some of the following ways to improve negative childhood eating behaviors and my recommendations for supporting healthy eating in your children.
Children are naturally drawn to sweet and slightly salty tastes. Unfortunately, the food industry has taken advantage of this by placing hundreds of hyper-palatable foods and beverages on grocery store shelves. In particular, consumption of juice and sugar sweetened beverages such as soda, sweet tea and fruit-flavored drinks are common in children. The problem is that the body does not easily recognize calories from beverages. Regardless of whether the sugar is natural in juice or from high fructose corn syrup in soda, these beverages are an extremely concentrated source of sugar. For example, a 12-ounce Coke contains 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar. However, when a child drinks a soda, the brain does not register that calories have been consumed. Children are actually very good at regulating their food intake (they eat when hungry and stop when full), but when the body and brain are “fooled” so to speak, the child may end up eating more calories from food to feel physically full. Over the long term, the excess calories could play a role in becoming overweight and eventually obese.
Sugar consumption can be a vicious cycle. Snacks and beverages that are entirely composed of sugar (a quickly metabolized form of carbohydrate) do not satisfy hunger. Often, these foods provide a quick burst of energy, then leave kids feeling tried and irritable. They certainly don’t support good energy levels to stay physically active. For example, parents may give their children fruit snacks. Oftentimes they are made with “real fruit,” or 100 percent juice, but this snack is still composed entirely of carbohydrates. A child who eats this snack will quickly feel hungry again and likely end up asking for another snack. Switching the snack to something with some protein, complex carbohydrates and fats, such as an apple with peanut butter or a fruit and yogurt, would be more satisfying and nutritious.
It has become quite common for children and families to eat in front of the TV or with other distractions. Family mealtime has a great influence on the development of healthy eating patterns in children. This can be difficult when children have busy schedules filled with extracurricular activities, however, when feasible, family meals should be made a priority. Studies have shown positive relationships between family mealtime and the overall quality of children’s diets. Specifically, children who eat with their families tend to have higher intakes of nutrients such as fiber, calcium, iron, folate and vitamins B6, B12, C and E, as well as higher intakes of fruits and vegetables.
Quick tips to support healthy eating patterns in children
- While parents may feel an obligation to restrict unhealthy foods, it is important to avoid doing so. This can actually increase a child’s desire for those foods. Food restriction at home can lead to overeating when a child finally has access, such as at a friend’s house. Alternatively, children may feel the need to eat those forbidden foods in secret.
- Remember that children may not always like a new food the first time they try it. Continue to expose children to new foods; it can take repeated exposures before they accept a new food. If your child dislikes a new food, never force her to eat it, as this creates a negative connotation with that food and may discourage her from trying it again.
- Parental eating patterns have a great influence on a child’s food preferences, so make sure you are also eating a varied diet. Make healthy eating fun for your kids with a trip to the farmers market where you let each child choose a new fruit or vegetable. The kids can search online for a new recipe using that food and then help to prepare the dish.
Experiment with these nutritious swaps for kids of all ages!
- Instead of fruit snacks, try “Ants On a Log” — celery sticks filled with a spread of natural peanut butter and topped with raisins. This classic childhood snack is perfect for after school, before sports practices or at any time of day! It provides protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates to keep kids full of energy. Make snack time fun and allow the kids to help assemble this easy, healthy snack!
- Instead of ice cream try a yogurt parfait. Let the kids build their own yogurt parfait for a healthy afternoon snack. Check your labels as lots of yogurt brands sneak in excess sugar, artificial colors and flavors. Skip the “diet” yogurts, too; they can be filled with artificial sweeteners, coloring, thickeners and gums to compensate for the lack of fat and sugar. Choose a plain, whole milk yogurt and let the kids customize it themselves with assorted toppings such as fresh fruit, nuts and a drizzle of honey. Whole milk yogurt is creamier, and the fat keeps children satisfied. Yogurt parfaits are a perfect breakfast or snack full of calcium, vitamin D, protein, probiotics, fiber and healthy fats.
- Instead of Goldfish crackers try roasted chickpeas. A few years ago, roasted chickpeas became trendy in the nutrition world. Both children and adults enjoy this snack, which can be prepared savory or slightly sweet. Chickpeas are chock full of fiber, complex carbohydrates, manganese and iron.