Dr. Joani Jack Pediatrician and C-HEAL Director, Children’s Hospital at Erlanger
The Facts on Fat
Obesity is a medical label given to individuals who have too much excess body fat. Since children are still growing, calculating BMI is preferable to weight measurements because it accounts for growth, comparing their BMI rates with others of the same height, age, and gender. According to Dr. Joani Jack, a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, “If the BMI is between the 5th and 84th percentile, they are at a healthy weight. If the BMI is between the 85th and 94th percentile, they are overweight. And if the BMI is 95th percentile or greater, they are obese.”
The health impacts of excess body fat can be devastating. Dr. Jack explains, “Children who are overweight or obese are at risk for a number of problems, both in childhood and throughout their lives. The medical risks include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, and bone and joint problems.” And what’s especially concerning – studies report that a staggering 80% of children who remain obese throughout adolescence will grow up to be obese adults.
Unfortunately, medical issues aren’t the only area of concern for children struggling with weight issues. Overweight and obese children often face social discrimination from other children or adults and can also develop “emotional disabilities including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disease, as well as an increased risk of being bullied by other children,” says Dr. Jack. These issues can have a sweeping impact, leading to low self-confidence and a lack of ambition in adulthood. One study from the University of Michigan found that chronically overweight people were 50% more likely to be single, unemployed, and on welfare.
Developing a Healthy Lifestyle
Fortunately, helping children make nutritious choices early can improve their odds of becoming healthy adults. Here’s how you can set them up for success.
It is critical that children maintain a positive body image. If you are concerned about the weight of your child, make sure to focus on his or her overall health – not weight loss or appearance. Dr. Tonia Cox, a pediatrician with CHI Memorial, shares, “Childhood obesity is a very complex issue because food is very much tied to our emotions. It is important to protect the self-esteem of our children and not demonize fatness or obesity.” Emphasize healthy food choices and the importance of physical activity instead of body weight.
Dr. Tyler McCurry Family Medicine Physician, Tennova Primary Care – Chambliss
“As the primary role models, the biggest mistake parents make is not changing their diets along with their children’s. If you are eating unhealthy foods, your children will too,” says Dr. Tyler McCurry, a family medicine physician with Tennova Primary Care. Though transitioning to a healthy diet can be difficult, following certain rules can make it easier. First, stick to foods that grow naturally in the earth, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Encourage kids to drink lots of water and limit sugary beverages like soda and fruit juice. Cook with lean proteins like poultry, fish, lean meats, lentils, beans, and eggs. They’ll fill you up and provide necessary nutrients. Dr. Cox adds, “Avoid processed foods or ‘convenience foods’ and stop snacking on the go. Eating all the time can lead to higher levels of insulin and create patterns that are hard to break.” And, while most foods can be consumed in moderation, sugar-rich foods and sweets should not be a part of anyone’s daily diet.
Life is busy and planning regular family dinners at home can feel burdensome. However, it may be time to consider rearranging your schedule for this critical activity. Research shows that children in homes where the family eats regular, home-cooked meals together are more likely to eat less, get better grades, and avoid peer pressure as teenagers. Plus, the average restaurant meal has 60% more calories and costs significantly more than a home-cooked meal. Try planning some simple dinners you can cook with minimal preparation, and set a time when your family can meet around the table each night to talk, share food, and spend some quality time together.
In addition to making healthy choices, it is important to teach kids about reasonable portion sizes. Unfortunately, most labels come with measurements that might be difficult for children to decipher. So, instead of focusing on ounces or cups, try using real-world visuals to teach children what an appropriate portion looks like. A serving of dry cereal, vegetables, or yogurt (1 cup), for example, is about the size of a baseball. A full serving of raisins is about the size of a golf ball, and a serving of lean beef or chicken is roughly the size of a deck of cards.
Much like healthy eating, exercise should be a family affair. Nothing will encourage children to be physically active more than seeing the adults in their lives do the same. “Try activities like doing chores together, taking a walk outside, creating fun indoor games (such as hide and seek or broomstick limbo), or playing video games that force you to get up and move,” says Dr. McCurry. Encourage your children to try different sports teams or activities that they are interested in. This way they can find something they truly enjoy, making them more inclined to stick with it. “It is important for children to incorporate 60 minutes of physical activity into their lives every day,” says Dr. Cox.