The Battle Against Childhood Obesity

Dr. Ayesha Ahmad Anwar

Childhood obesity is a very real and concerning issue for many parents, especially here in Texas. One in three Texan children is overweight or obese, including almost half of Hispanic children in the state. These children have an even greater chance of remaining obese as adults. Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on health and well-being. Obese youth are more likely to be at risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. They are also at greater risk for many types of cancer, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.

Fortunately, obesity is a preventable condition. Simple lifestyle changes that are implemented while children are still young can potentially reverse their unhealthy weight trends and prevent weight gain in the first place. As parents, it is crucial to be positive role models for our children and to help instill in them the importance of making healthy eating choices and remaining physically active with daily exercise.

Here are some basic tips to help jump start healthy behaviors that could potentially last a lifetime:

  • Eliminate liquid calories. One of the easiest ways to decrease your child’s caloric intake is to get rid of the calories they drink. As infants, the only fluids necessary for life are breast milk and formula. Once children are obtaining adequate nutrition from a solid diet, there is little need for them to drink anything other than water, with the exception of some milk, not to exceed 16-24 ounces a day. They do not need juice. They do not need Gatorade or other fancy vitamin waters. They do not need soda or sweet tea. Each serving of these sweetened beverages contains roughly 100 calories, in a form that evades your body’s mechanism for feeling full. The calories from just one serving per day of one of these sugary drinks can add up to about 10 pounds of extra fat over a year’s time. Cutting them out can make a huge difference.
  • Stop buying junk. If your kids are eating junk food, it’s most likely because you are buying it for them. It is much easier to avoid unhealthy foods if they are simply not around to provide an extra source of temptation. If it’s not there, they can’t eat it. This method is also much more reliable than expecting a child to choose a piece of fruit over a package of chips. And let’s be honest – limiting the availability of unhealthy snacks is probably a good idea for the rest of the household as well. It’s not fair to limit the junk food for just one member of the family, so make it easier for everyone involved, and keep it out of the house in the first place.
  • Eat fresh, REAL food that is grown on a farm. This is a simple rule for deciding whether or not something is healthy. You should always shop along “the perimeter” of the grocery store, where the fruits, vegetables, and dairy live. Leave the processed foods in the middle of the store for someone else. You don’t need to read nutrition labels when you pick up a quart of berries or a bunch of bananas. Food that grows in the ground is almost always more healthy than something that was made in a factory, put in a box, and stamped with an expiration date three years in the future. Too often, parents focus on purchasing organic, gluten-free, or GMO-free foods while neglecting the basics of nutrition. Oreos are vegan and Skittles are gluten-free, but that doesn’t mean that they are nutritious or healthy food choices.
  • Kick your kids out. Turn off the TV and make your kids get out of the house and play. Better yet, go with them. Take them to the park, go for a walk, or ride your bikes together. Time and time again, exercise has been shown to improve physical and mental health. Remember, though, that it’s a lot easier to eat or drink 200 calories than it is to burn them off. Make it easier for your kids by limiting the number of calories they need to burn.

Finally, a word about weight. While it’s important to encourage your children to develop healthy eating habits, it’s also crucial to avoid teaching them to fixate on the number on the scale. Most overweight children don’t need to actually lose weight. Typically, all they need is to make a few proactive changes to help keep their weight steady while he or she “grows into it.” And remember, even if your child’s weight is perfectly normal, good nutrition and exercise are always good life lessons to learn.

Dr. Ayesha Ahmad Anwar is a pediatrician in Grand Prairie.