Chubby cheeks and dimpled knees may be healthy hallmarks for babies and toddlers, but that baby fat shouldn’t linger into adulthood. According to the National Institutes of Health, about one-third of children between the ages of 6 and 19 are considered overweight or obese, taking a toll on their emotional health and setting them up for health issues as adults. However, incorporating small lifestyle changes over time can significantly help children reach and maintain a healthy weight.
“Making small changes early on with your family can prevent childhood obesity and a lifetime of complications,” says Daniel Lichtmann, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic, Carmel Valley. “It’s never too early to start including healthy habits in your child’s daily life, including making good food choices and increasing physical activity.”
Try these tips to encourage healthy living in your house:
1. Be a role model
“As a parent, you have tremendous impact on your youngster,” says Dr. Lichtmann. “Children will follow what you do, and if you lead an active and healthy lifestyle at home, chances are high that your family will as well.”
2. Develop healthy eating habits
Your pediatrician can advise you on what your child needs to eat to support healthy growth and development. Generally children need to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Keep water, fruits, vegetables and other low-calorie snacks readily available, and higher calorie food less visible.
“Treats are okay in moderation,” says Dr. Lichtmann. “But limiting high-fat and high-sugar snacks and sugar-sweetened drinks will help kids develop good eating habits.”
Schedule regular meal times since most children thrive on routine. If kids know they will be eating at certain times, they are more likely to eat what they are served.
3. Include kids in grocery shopping and cooking
Bring your children to the store and have them help you select healthy foods. Have them pick out fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors, from red tomatoes to blueberries and yellow bananas. When cooking, give them an age-appropriate task in the kitchen and explain what you are making and why it is good for them.
4. Cut back on screen time
Spending too much time in front of the television or computer has been shown to contribute to obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting daily screen time to two hours or less and removing mobile devices from bedrooms when it’s time for sleep. “Kids often snack while watching TV, and screen time takes away from time they could be spending running around on the playground or playing with friends,” says Dr. Lichtmann.
5. Encourage exercise
The AAP recommends that children 6 and older get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily. The activity does not have to occur at one time. For instance, riding a bike to and from school for 15 minutes, playing at the park for 30 and a 15-minute family walk after dinner adds up to an hour of activity—and fun. Your pediatrician can suggest an activity or sport that is developmentally appropriate.
Don’t overdo it. Exercise should not hurt, and you want your child to have fun with physical activity.
“Be positive and proactive and no matter what your child’s weight is, always let them know you love them and that you want them to be healthy and happy,” says Dr. Lichtmann.
If you have concerns about your child’s development, weight eating habits or activity, speak with your pediatrician.