Obesity in children puts them at increased risk for multiple medical complications, including diabetes, hypertension, early heart disease, fatty liver disease, early puberty and sleep apnea, according to Dr. Michelle Levitt, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital who oversees the Healthy Active Living program.
Obesity not only affects a child physically, but emotionally and socially, too.
Levitt said childhood obesity can impact school performance and self-esteem and can lead to bullying, as well as anxiety and depression.
Locally, this issue mirrors the national average: the 2016-2017 Richland County Community Health Assessment identified that 19 percent of Richland County youth were obese, according to Body Mass Index (BMI) by age.
“When asked how they would describe their weight, 27 percent of Richland County youth reported that they were slightly or very overweight. Sixty-seven percent of youth reported exercising for 60 minutes on three or more days per week,” the assessment stated.
Although there’s no easy answer to this issue, there are many steps parents can take to help support children in their health journeys.
Steps in progress
An abundance of information exists on food and nutrition, but Dr. Mark Redding, a primary care pediatrician at Akron Children’s Mansfield office, boiled it down into three bullet points:
- Food freedom
- Grocery cart control
- Focusing on healthy habits, not weight
“The best way to make sure your child will never eat broccoli is to say what most of us parents have said, ‘You have to eat your broccoli.’ The latest research proves the child knows that they control what they put in their mouth, and if we try taking over that control, the first response from toddlers up is to show us who is boss,” Redding explained.
He advises parents to give children healthy choices, set the right example and make mealtime a fun and interactive place for the family as an important protective factor (mealtime with screens off helps).
“Realize there will be times they eat this and won’t eat that,” he said. “Keep those healthy choices available and make sure they know you know it is their decision what they decide to eat.”
Grocery cart control
“You can control what you put in the grocery cart, have available in the refrigerator and what is available at mealtime,” Redding said.
Instead of stocking up on sugary drinks like soft drinks, sports drinks, and all-natural juice, choose low-fat milk and water. Sipping on sugary drinks, even just one or two a day, can add many extra pounds per year.
Here are some quick tips on shopping smart at the grocery store.
“Green vegetables and beans (black, chili, pinto and others) may be among the healthiest foods possible and what they could fill up on,” Redding said.
Look for lean meat, such as skinless chicken and turkey. Opt for whole-grain items when possible.
"As our national spend on restaurants may be surpassing that of buying groceries, setting norms for the family regarding not getting soft drinks when eating out and finding healthy food options to choose from can make a big difference,” Redding said.
Focus on healthy habits
“Doctors, patients and families that focus too much on that scale weight number may not have the best long-term results in achieving a healthier weight,” Redding cautioned. “Exercise focused on feeling better and achieving a better sense of health and well-being may be the most effective focus to actually do it.”
Plan family activities that involve less sitting and more activity, “especially in our part of the state with some of the greatest hiking and outdoor experiences available,” Redding said.
Another healthy habit is limiting screen time.
It’s not uncommon for families to relax their routines during the summer. But as the school …
“Average screen time for children now is more than six hours per day. One to two hours or less is recommended,” Redding said.
“The new apps offered for phones, tablets and computers can be a significant help as they turn off the device after the amount of time you prescribe has been spent.”
Keeping screens out of the child’s bedroom can also increase sleep. Getting enough sleep is an additional protective factor for healthier weight.
“There are many different factors involved in our health and nutrition,” Redding said. “Taking reasonable, steady steps to improve where each of us are starting from can add up to significant progress in health and wellness over time.
“Not sure how anyone makes progress if they don’t have ice cream every once in a while.”
Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger
Many factors, working in combination, are contributing to the obesity rates, Levitt said.
Poor food quality and increased availability of hyper-caloric, low nutrient-dense processed foods is a major contributing factor as these foods are cheap and readily available, she said.
Other factors, she said, include food deserts, food insecurity and adverse childhood experiences.
Also, with advancements in technology, children are more sedentary and spend more time in front of screens, which often contributes to poor sleep and can also lead to obesity, she said.
“Genetics do play a role in obesity, but I tell families that genetics load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger,” Levitt said.
To help prevent childhood obesity, Levitt said two big things parents can do are:
- Role model healthy behaviors
- Protect the home. For example, if parents keep processed junk foods out of the home, they are setting the environment up for success with healthy food choices, she said.
She echoed Redding in encouraging parents to offer milk and water to their children instead of sweetened drinks.
“When eating out, set the precedence that they may order milk or water beforehand,” she said.
She also suggested to “get out of the box” when it comes to breakfast.
“Stop stocking the home with cereal, pastries, frozen waffles, bagels, etc. Change breakfast to a balanced meal of protein and fiber from fruits and veggies and healthy fats,” she said.
Examples include eggs and fruit or a veggie omelet.
For lunch and dinner, she said, focus on filling half to three-fourths of the plate with veggies and pairing that with a protein source. Portion any starch to about the size of the child’s fist. Second helpings can be veggies or protein instead of more starch.
“Begin to pay attention to and have your child start becoming aware of their own hunger and satiety cues,” she said.
For snacks, remove all packaged products from the home and offer real whole food like an apple and peanut butter or carrots and string cheese.
Finally, make exercise a family affair, she recommends.
"Kids love when parents get active with them instead of telling them to be active,” she said.
The role that movement plays
As a physical education teacher, Brandie Albert knows the importance of instilling healthy habits in children.
“Physical activity is so important for a child’s development, and we have to lay a foundation for an active lifestyle and a healthy lifestyle early on,” she said. “Children have to have active role models. Role models have to help children develop good habits.”
“Being active as a young child has so many benefits, which include growth and development, building strong bones and muscles, achieving a healthy weight, improving confidence and self-esteem, establishing connections between different parts of the brain, development of gross motor and fine motor skills, developing fundamental movement skills,” Albert said.
“Being active and eating healthy helps improve concentration and thinking, helps relieve stress, gives opportunities to improve social skills and make friends, and helps kids with the need to sleep.”
Albert, who has taught at Auburn Elementary School in Shelby since 2002, said she was drawn to the physical education/health education field because of the mentors and teachers she had when she was growing up.
“When it came time to pursue a specific area in education in college, I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted do with my life other than to help kids enjoy those same things and experiences,” Albert said.
Although more work is yet to be done on mitigating childhood obesity, Albert said she’s been impressed by the increased awareness children have demonstrated regarding the importance of physical activity.
“As a society, fitness has become more important and our kids are noticing,” she said. “Our kids know what Fitbits and pedometers are and how many steps they are taking. I think that is awesome.”
Albert said she’s trying to do her part in preventing childhood obesity by making the physical education classes she leads “the most exciting experience they can get,” she said.
“I’m trying to provide a lot of different opportunities and skills for lifelong movement,” she said.
Her hope is that students know and enjoy movement experiences beyond the classroom.
"It can’t happen just in PE class,” she said. “Kids have to get involved in things outside of the school day that contribute to exercise and healthy habits. Dancing, hiking, swimming, biking, walking, team sports, individual sports....get them involved and help them find something they like. And though many activities do have a cost, many are free.
“Kids just need those role models to get up and show them that moving and activity are a priority.”
This story is brought to you in part by the Little Buckeye Children's Museum, a local children's museum that is proud to provide children and families opportunities to learn and discover through the power of play every day in Richland County. As a nonprofit, Little Buckeye Children's Museum appreciates the support of the community it serves. If you would like to support Little Buckeye Children's Museum and its mission for healthy child development, click here.