by Dr. Don Colbert
By teaching your children healthy eating habits, you can keep them at a healthy weight. Also, the eating habits your children pick up when they are young will help them maintain a healthy lifestyle when they are adults. The challenges we face are imposing. The state of children's health today is, according to recent measures, at its most dire. The rise in rates of complex, chronic childhood disorders has been well profiled. Here are some concrete examples of the current state of children's health:
Cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease in children, with the most common cases being leukemia and cancers of the brain and nervous system.8
Obesity is epidemic. Research shows that from 1980 to 2006 the prevalence of obesity has jumped from 5 percent to 12 percent in children ages two to five, from 6.5 percent to 17 percent in ages six to eleven, and from 5 percent to 17.6 percent in ages twelve to nineteen.9
Twenty percent of children are overweight.10
Diabetes now affects 1 in every 500 children. Of those children newly diagnosed with diabetes, the percentage with type 2 (“adult-onset”) has risen from less than 5 percent to nearly 50 percent in a ten-year period.11
Asthma is the most prevalent chronic disease affecting American children, leading to 15 million missed days of school per year. Since 1980, the percentage of children with asthma has almost tripled.12
Approximately 1 in 25 American children now suffer from food allergies. From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18 percent among children under the age of eighteen years.13
One in 6 children is diagnosed with a significant neurodevelopmental disability, including 1 in 12 with ADHD. Autism affects 1 in 110 U.S. children, an extraordinary rise in prevalence.14
Babies in one study were noted, at birth, to have an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants present in their umbilical cord blood.15
These statistics are sobering indeed, and perhaps the most sobering is the rise in childhood obesity. Why? Obesity plays a part in several other chronic illnesses that are also on the rise among children. And there's an unwelcome side effect—more kids are being put on prescription medications for obesity-related chronic diseases. Across the board, we are witnessing increases in prescriptions for children with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and asthma. There must be a better way.
Top Three Tips for Parents
Lead by example. Your child will have an extremely difficult time making healthy eating choices and exercising regularly if you don't consistently show him or her how. Numerous studies have shown that parents' dietary and exercise choices and behavior have a powerful influence on a child's weight as he or she grows and develops.
Take baby steps that lead to lasting changes. If your child is overweight, avoid diets that promise instant weight loss. Gradual changes that move your family toward more healthful living are a better way to go.
Take your time as you replace your child's old habits with healthy ones. This goes hand in hand with tip #2. You're in this for the long haul. It takes time to adapt to a new lifestyle. Be patient as he or she adjusts to the new eating habits and activities that you will be introducing.
Wondering About Your Child's Weight?
Five Questions to Ask Your Pediatrician
I understand that you probably don't want to talk about the possibility that your child may not be at a healthy weight. To help make this as painless as possible, I recommend asking your doctor the following questions to get the conversation started.
What is a healthy weight for my child's height? Your doctor will use a growth chart to show you how your child is growing and give you a healthy weight range for your child. The doctor may also tell you your child's body mass index (BMI).
Is my child's weight putting him or her at risk for any illnesses? Based on your family history and other factors, your doctor can help you to determine what health risks your child may be facing. Overweight and obese inactive children have an increased risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. High blood pressure and all the diseases listed on pages 7–8 can also occur in overweight children.
How much exercise does my child need? The National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services all recommend at least one hour of moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity or exercise a day. However, according to the CDC, only 35 percent of children engage in any kind of physical activity that raises their heart and breathing rates.17 Talk to your doctor and see chapter 9 for specific ways to help increase your child's activity level.
Does my child need to go on a diet? Although an overweight and obese child's eating habits will need to change, I don't advise using the word diet because it focuses on short-term eating habits that are rarely sustainable for long-term health. Children (and adults) who become chronic dieters are setting themselves up for problems with their metabolism later in life. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that teens who were pressured to diet are three times more likely to be carrying excess weight five years later.18 A healthier approachóincluding a healthy breakfast, healthy beverages, and quality time at dinneróis to put your whole family on the path to healthy food choices and portion sizes with gradual but permanent changes.
How do I talk about weight without hurting my child's feelings? Above all, the message must never be, "You're fat," or "You need to lose weight." Instead, it should be praising your child for healthy food choices and providing unconditional love with plenty of hugs, kisses, and quality time. Tell your child that you'll always love his or her body and that you will love him or her at any size. Say, "Our family needs to make better choices about eating and being more active so that we all can be healthy."