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