What Can Parents Do to Prevent Childhood Obesity? (video/podcast)

Scripps pediatrician explains how to build healthy lifestyle habits

Scripps pediatrician explains how to build healthy lifestyle habits

Over the past few decades, obesity rates among children have risen steeply. In fact, almost 15 million children and adolescents — roughly 2 out of every 10 kids — are obese. Childhood obesity raises the risk of many health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and respiratory illnesses, as well as back and joint problems.

In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Ann MacQuarrie, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley, about why childhood obesity is on the rise and how to address it.

Why is childhood obesity on the rise?

Multiple factors may contribute to obesity. There’s no question that genetics play a role, so kids whose parents are overweight are more likely to have weight issues. However, as with adult obesity, lifestyle also matters.

“A big part of it is recent societal changes, things like decreased physical activity, increased access to unhealthy foods and larger portion sizes,” says Dr. MacQuarrie. “Unfortunately, sugar-sweetened beverages have become a big part of a child’s diet. And on average, 10 to 15% of a child’s calorie intake in a day comes from sugary beverages.”

Kids also are spending more time than ever in front of television, video and mobile phone screens instead of doing something active. This decrease in physical activity not only means they are burning fewer calories, but can even slow down their metabolism, so their bodies burn fewer calories all day and night.

In addition, there may be psychological reasons for gaining excess weight. Adverse childhood events like being bullied at school or parents getting divorced can also contribute to increased appetite and obesity. So can mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, which also are rising among kids.

Moreover, obesity tends to worsen as kids get older. Studies have shown that many obese adolescents established unhealthy habits that led to obesity before the age of five. This suggests that children adopt behaviors and patterns learned early on and carry them into their adult lives.

How can parents help?

As their child’s main role models, parents can strive to create a home life that encourages a healthy lifestyle. Because it can be more difficult to make substantial changes in weight when you are older, Dr. MacQuarrie encourages parents to create positive habits while their children are still young. Set examples for children to follow by making healthy food choices, limiting your own screen time and incorporating physical activity into your daily routine.

Here are a few ideas for parents and kids:

  • Build meals and snacks around healthy food groups, including fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy.
  • Avoid or minimize processed food like chips, crackers, cookies and sugary beverages, as they provide a lot of “empty” calories without much nutritional benefit.

“If you have a picky eater, I encourage you to keep exposing them to new foods because over time they're much more likely to eat foods that they see regularly,” says Dr. MacQuarrie.

  • Minimize fast foods. It’s easier to eat healthier at home, where you have more control over ingredients and portion sizes.
  • Limit screen time on television and devices.
  • Instead of watching a movie together, do something active like a family walk, a neighborhood scavenger hunt or a bike ride.
  • Have kids follow the “five-two-one-zero rule.”

What is the 5-2-1-0 rule?

The 5-2-1-0 rule is a way to create healthy habits for the entire family.

For children, this means that throughout the day, they should get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables, spend less than two hours in front of screens, spend at least 60 minutes doing activity that raises their heart rate, and have zero sugar-sweetened beverages.

“The other important thing is setting personal goals that you feel you can actually accomplish and maintain long-term,” says Dr. MacQuarrie. “If you set too large of a goal for your child, it can be really hard to maintain. Set small, incremental goals to change habits in steps.”

Finally, enlist your child’s pediatrician to help your child set and reach their weight goals and, in turn, improve their health.

Listen to the podcast on how to prevent childhood obesity

Listen to the podcast on how to prevent childhood obesity

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