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Combating Childhood Obesity

Preventing and treating this epidemic starts at home

Most parents would agree: It's hard to get kids to do anything that's "good for them."

But when it comes to your child's health, you can't afford to leave it to chance.

Childhood obesity is quickly becoming an epidemic in the U.S. Over the past 35 years, childhood obesity rates have tripled. Today, nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese.

If left untreated, these children are at a higher risk for chronic obesity-related problems like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma. In fact, clinicians are actually seeing "adult" diseases and conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and asthma already present in children today.

If obesity isn't addressed and treated in childhood, the problem will continue to grow — literally. Three out of four children who are obese at age 12 will be obese as adults.

"In general, obese kids become obese adults, and they don't tend to get to a healthy weight without some kind of treatment plan," says Bradley Appelhans, PhD, a clinical psychologist and obesity researcher at the Rush University Prevention Center.

Understanding the problem

To both prevent and treat childhood obesity, it's important to know what you're up against. According to Appelhans, the brain handles food in a way that promotes weight gain.

For instance, simply seeing a delicious food — even in a television commercial — causes a person to actually crave the food so strongly that it is often difficult to resist. "Given that, by modifying these situations or your environment, you may be able to avoid the temptation altogether," says Appelhans.

In adults, the brain region responsible for suppressing this desire to eat — the prefrontal cortex — has difficulty curbing cravings. "It is probably even less effective in kids because that part of the brain doesn't fully mature until your early 20s," says Appelhans.

Kids often share the dietary patterns of their parents. If parents have a preference for fast food, of course their kids will end up eating that, too.

Get a support system in place

Parents who are worried about their kids' weight or think there is a problem should get support, starting with your child's pediatrician. 

"A pediatrician can determine if your child truly has a weight problem and, if they do, offer positive ways to help them slim down," says Adriana Romero, DO, a pediatrician at Rush University Children's Hospital.

Your child's pediatrician and nutritionists can work with your family not only to create realistic diet and exercise plans, but also to help your child cope with the emotional aspects of being overweight.

Healthy behaviors start with you

Parents also need to look within and evaluate their own eating behaviors. "Kids often share the dietary patterns of their parents," says Appelhans. "If parents have a preference for fast food, of course their kids will end up eating that, too."

Furthermore, children with overweight parents are at a higher risk of being overweight.

"We expect that some of the childhood obesity risk is linked to genetic inheritance," says Appelhans. "But the behaviors causing the parents to be overweight are also being transferred to the kids."

Change for the better

That's why it's best to work on your child's weight as a family. "Everyone can benefit from healthy habits," Romero says. "And if the whole family is motivated, then your child won't feel like they're being picked on or isolated, which could harm their self-esteem."

She and Appelhans offer the following advice for families:

  • Shop together for healthy foods. Steer kids away from the junk food aisle and toward the produce department. Encourage them to pick out fruits and vegetables — especially ones they haven't tried before. "Kids love novelties," Romero says. "So if you say, 'Let's try something new, and you choose,' chances are they'll love that."
  • Involve kids in meal planning. You may decide the menu, like chicken or fish. "But you can ask a child, 'How would you like this cooked?' " Romero says. "Or, 'Would you like a vegetable or salad as a side?' That way, they feel like they have a say in what's being served."
  • Don't focus on counting calories. Instead, emphasize both proper nutrition and proper portion sizes. Teach kids the difference between healthy foods and unhealthy foods, what serving sizes of different foods look like, and how to prepare foods in healthier ways (like steaming or roasting instead of frying).
  • Eat meals as a family so you are more aware of what your kids are eating. And don't allow distractions, like electronic devices, at the table. Distracted eaters don't pay as much attention to how much or what they're eating.
  • Don't have junk food readily available. "For instance, it is much better to go out for ice cream once in a while, rather than having pints of ice cream in your freezer at home," Appelhans says. Of course, sometimes it's tough to avoid a sweet treat, especially on special occasions like birthdays and holidays. "Let the kids have fun and indulge if they're at a party or holiday celebration," he adds. "But it should not be the kind of thing where they are having baked goods and candy every night."
  • Be active together as much as possible. Take a family walk, for example, when weather permits. If you do a family activity, choose something active, like bowling, ice skating or riding bikes instead of sitting and watching a movie. 

Talk to your kids about their weight

If your child does have a weight problem, address it as early as possible, before any health problems occur. A good place to start is by talking to your child. 

Beth Volin, MD, a pediatrician at Rush University Children's Hospital, offers these suggestions for having a constructive and sensible conversation:

  • Have the talk in a private, quite place where you won't be interrupted. Pick a time when neither of you will be rushed or distracted. Turn off all phones, tablets, computers and TVs. 
  • Start by reaffirming your acceptance of and love for your child, and by emphasizing his or her strengths.
  • Avoid criticizing, yelling or blaming.
  • Keep the focus on your child's health, not weight or appearance. Explain what a healthy lifestyle is — which includes a healthy weight — and why it's good for everyone.
  • Steer clear of words like dieting, chubby or fat. Well-meaning parents can easily say something that might lead to a poor body image.
  • Be a good listener. Give your child a chance to tell you about his or her feelings.
  • Be careful to avoid comparing your child to a thinner sibling or punishing your child for overeating.
  • Set realistic goals. Don't focus on weight loss as the only measure of success. Talk about becoming healthier and more physically fit over time.
  • If you think emotions will get in the way, ask someone your child trusts to talk to him or her.
  • Finally, remember that children take their cues from adults. It should never be a case of, "Do as I say, not as I do." If your behaviors contradict what you're telling your child, they will be less likely to listen.

"The best thing you, as a parent, can do is be supportive," Volin says. "Be a cheerleader for your child."

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