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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.

High BMI = health hazard

Like adults, children are defined as overweight or obese through their body mass index (BMI) percentile.

In children, BMI is measured by weight in relation to height and then compared to other children of the same sex and age. Children with a BMI over the 85th percentile are overweight; children with a BMI over the 95th percentile are obese. 

Determine your child's BMI with our handy height and weight chart and BMI calculator.

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

Taking on childhood obesity is not about teaching children to count calories. Rather, parents need to learn what children should be eating and proper portion sizes.

But Appelhans says that parents who are worried about their kids' weight or think there is a problem should get support.

The Rush University Prevention Center provides family-based behavioral weight management services. Clinicians help the family determine what dietary and physical activity factors are contributing to the problem, what the child should be eating and what strategies parents can implement to promote healthier eating habits.

Your child's pediatrician and nutritionists can also work with your family to create realistic diet and exercise plans, as well as 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

One way to start turning things around: having meals as a family so you are more aware of what your kids are eating. Additionally, allowing the kids to help prepare these family meals may make them more open to trying healthier fare.

Appelhans also suggests simply not having junk food readily available. "I’m not saying that you can't give your kids ice cream. But you shouldn't have pints of ice cream in the freezer," he says. "It is much better to go out for ice cream once in a while, rather than having it in the home."

Of course, sometimes it's tough to avoid a sweet treat, especially around Halloween. Parents may need to limit how much candy children collect. "Let the kids have fun and indulge on Halloween," says Appelhans. "But it should not be the kind of thing where they are collecting enough candy to last a month."

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, 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 criticizng or yelling.
  • Keep the focus on your child's health, not appearance.
  • Be a good listener. Give your child a chance to tell you about his or her feelings.
  • 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.

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


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