Preventing Obesity For the Entire Family
Today’s guest post on family nutrition is by Chelsea Guder, RD, LDN, a Registered Dietitian that currently works patients in a hospital in the Midwest on the cancer and surgical floors. Chelsea’s passion is health and well-being, especially for children, mothers and families as a whole. In her free time, Chelsea cooks, reads, and spends time being active with her husband Paul and with her Pug, Hamburger.
Over the past 30 years, the United States has seen the amount of obese children double and the amount of obese adolescents triple. This is a huge concern for health professionals since more overweight and obese children may lead to more overweight and obese adults. This in turn means more cases of costly, yet highly preventable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. We are already starting to see children diagnosed with diseases that only adults used to get such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and joint problems. Children who are overweight and obese may also suffer from other concerns like poor self-esteem, depression, and reduced quality of life. Registered Dietitians such as myself are one part of the health care team, along with pediatricians, nurses, counselors and trainers, who are committed to helping address this significant problem.
There are many reasons why more and more children and adults are putting on weight; there are fewer opportunities for children to play outside, including recess or regular physical education classes at school. Children may be spending more of their time as “screen time,” being sedentary in front of a computer, tablet, game or TV. Parents and guardians may have less time to cook meals or spend time together as a family at meals. Dinner has turned from home-cooked meals to fast food and convenience food, which are typically higher in calories and fat and lower in important nutrients like calcium and iron. Portion sizes at restaurants and at home have steadily increased over the past few decades. Other contributing factors may include poverty, misinformation, fad diets, picky eating, and even boredom. Childhood obesity is rising, and so are its costs to society.
A Family Solution to Obesity
Turn it off!
There is no quick fix solution to childhood obesity, as the best solution will have to address many of these potential causes. There are a few tips however, which many health professionals recommend to help children and families get on a healthier track:
- Limit screen time and encourage more activity as a family and as individuals. Not only does physical activity encourage a healthier weight, but also develops strong muscles, heart, lungs and bone health.
- Limit foods and drinks that contain little else but calories available in the home. This means sugary drinks, soft drinks, and high fat and calorie snacks should be only occasionally purchased and should not be used for the daily snacks available to kids. Instead parents should provide plenty of ready to eat, already prepared vegetables and fruit.
- Increase the number of family meals at home. There have been several studies suggesting that family meals are associated with a reduced risk of childhood obesity and an increase in the intake of important vitamins and minerals in children.
- Consistency is key. It is important to keep in mind in order to have long-lasting benefits from a lifestyle change, that change has to life-long. This is one reason why fad diets do not work and only yield short term results at best, and at worst are harmful to your body (and fad diets are never appropriate for children).
Finally, set your child up for success and provide support. Any change in eating habits or physical activity will need plenty of help and encouragement from all family members to succeed. This is why any significant caretakers in the child’s life (parents, older siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles) must all be on board with the changes the family wishes to make. Childhood obesity simply isn’t the “child’s problem;” our families and society have a significant impact on our health. The family is the most basic living and cultural unit for people, and a healthy family means healthy individuals and a healthy society. Anyone who has to make any behavior change is more successful with positive reinforcement and support, and if the whole family is on board, this can help create multi-generational healthy changes in dietary and physical activity behaviors (see https://www2.aap.org/obesity/ and http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/tips.htm for more tips).
Lifestyle Changes Instead of a “Diet”
Since children are growing, “dieting” in the familiar sense and meal plans are not recommended for most children as this can limit the nutrients they need. The ultimate goal of any family-driven behavior change is for children to get the nutrition they need to grow and develop, in the appropriate amounts, without making mealtimes a battle for the whole family. Meal times should be a positive time for sharing, learning and growing. If a child can gain confidence through the choices they make, with the help of their family and the leadership of their parents, they can grown into more independent adult who will continue to make healthy choices. With that in mind, there is a specific eating theory that many dietitians look to when helping families become healthier, together.
Ellyn Satter is a Registered Dietitian who has written many books and has studied some of the best ways to help children and families learn healthy eating behaviors. Her eating theory is considered a gold standard by many dietitians who work with families and children and is called the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. The specifics of her theory vary for each age group, but the core of her theory is that several areas of responsibility with eating, the what to eat, the when to eat and the how much to eat, as well as the where to eat and whether to eat as children get older.
As an infant, the division of responsibility is quite simple; the baby tells you when they are hungry and they determine how much they want to eat. The parent determines what they eat (breastmilk or formula). Babies typically stop when they are full, and cry when they are hungry. But as infants grow into kids and adolescents, they start to eat with their family’s schedule, and not on their own time. Now parents become as responsible for the when to eat (meal times) and where to eat (at the table, not in front of the tv) as they are with the what to eat. Children are now becoming more responsible for the how much, as well as whether to eat.
This may seem like a challenge for parents at first, as they have to relinquish some of the “control.” Parents still have a lot of influence, however, as they need to provide nutrient rich, healthy foods for their children, and can role model good behavior (trying new foods repeatedly, being “OK” with eating foods that are less desired, etc). And if goal is for children to learn to be independent and make healthy choices, this may help make family meals less of a hassle while also teaching children life-long, healthy habits.
Need a healthy recipe to jump start the changes you and your family wish to make? Here is a great one filled with low calorie, but nutrient packed vegetables. Consider adding Edamame or tofu for a boost of protein, and serve with brown rice in this Garden Stir-Fry. If you’d like additional recipes or physical activity tips that are kid friendly, visit MyPlate Kids’ Place for more information.
Full List of References:
The CDC’s Childhod Obesity Facts The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Family Meals Keep Kids Slimmer, Healthier Study Finds by Health
Tips to Help You Get Active The Weight-controlled Information Network of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
The Very Best Way To Lose Weight and Keep It Off The Cleveland Clinic
Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Overweight and Obesity American Academy of Pediatrics
Family Meals Help Cut Risk of Childhood Obesity WebMD Health and Parenting
MyPlate Kids’ Place Choosemyplate.gov
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding Ellyn Satter Institute