Obesity can be a weighty challenge for many children

In the past 20 years, the number of obese children and adolescents has tripled in the United States, resulting in a public health crisis never before seen. One in three children are now considered obese or overweight. Obesity continues to rise at an alarming rate; jeopardizing the future health and well being of our children. Fortunately, by educating ourselves and taking action, this trend can be reversed.

In addition to the long-term effects of psychological or emotional damage, obese children and adolescents may suffer serious health problems like cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea. In addition, they are at greater risk to develop health problems as adults.

Obesity is the result of an imbalance in the number of calories consumed by food and beverages and the calories burned to support normal growth and development, metabolism and physical activity.

Obesity is the result of too much body fat. Body Mass Index (BMI) is a formula used to help calculate the amount of fat a person has based on his/her height and weight. Once you know your child’s BMI, your doctor can plot it on a standard BMI chart. Kids fall into one of four categories:

1. Underweight: BMI below the 5th percentile

2. Normal weight: BMI at the 5th and less than the 85th percentile

3. Overweight: BMI at the 85th and below 95th percentiles

4. Obese: BMI at or above 95th percentile

Please keep in mind that kids grow at different rates so you should never make a diagnosis on your own – talk with your child’s doctor to see if he or she is at risk or within a healthy range.

There are a number of factors that contribute to child obesity. Genetics, endocrine problems, medications, lifestyle habits or a combination of some or all may be involved. However, a significant amount of overweight/obese children are simply not eating right or exercising enough.

Families today seem to always be on the go and much of what we eat is quick and easy, like fast food or microwave and prepackaged meals. Finding time to prepare healthier meals or squeeze in exercise can be challenging.

To make matters worse, many kids aren’t getting enough physical activity. Too much time is spent sitting around, watching TV, surfing the Internet or playing video games. Studies show that kids who sit in front of a computer or television more than four hours a day are more likely to be overweight than with kids who watch two hours or less.

Preventing kids from becoming overweight or obese means changing the way your family eats and exercises and how you spend time together. Make healthy eating and exercise a priority in your family.

Eat dinners together as a family whenever possible with no outside distractions like the television or phone. For meals, consider the following:

Serve protein-rich meals like lean meats, fish, eggs, beans and nuts.

Choose fiber rich whole grain breads and cereals and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.

Develop healthy eating habits and look for ways to make favorite foods healthier like grilling or broiling instead of deep-frying.

Avoid forcing kids to eat everything on their plates if they say they are full. You should only eat when you are hungry.

You should never use food as a reward for good behavior or to try to stop bad behavior.

Don’t make food the enemy by completely eliminating all sweets and favorite snacks from kids’ diets. Remember, focus on healthy nutrition with balance; everything is fine in moderation. If you don’t, you run the risk of having kids rebel and sneak these foods outside the home.

Encourage activity by getting active yourself – children imitate adults so this is an opportunity to set the example. Take walks together as a family; ride bicycles; play games; go to the park – make activity fun!

Children and adolescents should spend at least 60 minutes every day doing moderate-intensity activities. Exercise helps strengthen bones, lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety and helps boost self esteem. Limit the time spent watching TV or playing video games to two hours a day.

Helping children lead healthy lifestyles begins with parents who lead by example and it is never too late to start.

Dr. Brenda Van Fossen is a board-certified pediatrician with Enumclaw Medical Center, part of Franciscan Medical Group.

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