Preventing Childhood Obesity: Tips for Parents

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Childhood Obesity is on the Rise

The number of overweight children in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years. Approximately 10 percent of 4 and 5 year old children are overweight, double that of 20 years ago. Overweight is more prevalent in girls than boys and in older preschoolers (ages 4-5) than younger (ages 2-3).

Obesity increases even more as children get older. For ages 6 to 11, at least one child in five is overweight. Over the last two decades, this number has increased by more than 50 percent and the number of obese children has nearly doubled.

For most children, overweight is the result of unhealthy eating patterns (too many calories) and too little physical activity. Since these habits are established in early childhood, efforts to prevent obesity should begin early.

Determining if a Child is Overweight

Parents should not make changes to a child’s diet based solely on perceptions of overweight. All preschoolers exhibit their own individual body structure and growth pattern. Assessing obesity in children is difficult because children grow in unpredictable spurts. It should only be done by a health care professional, using the child’s height and weight relative to his previous growth history.

Helping Overweight Children

Weight loss is not a good approach for most young children, since their bodies are growing and developing. Overweight children should not be put on a diet unless a physician supervises one for medical reasons. A restrictive diet may not supply the energy and nutrients needed for normal growth and development.

For most very young children, the focus should be to maintain current weight, while the child grows normally in height.

The most important strategies for preventing obesity are healthy eating behaviors, regular physical activity, and reduced sedentary activity (such as watching television and videotapes, and playing computer games). These preventative strategies are part of a healthy lifestyle that should be developed during early childhood. They can be accomplished by following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines provide general diet and lifestyle recommendations for healthy Americans ages 2 years and over (not for younger children and infants). The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines can be found on www.ChooseMyPlate.gov. Following these guidelines can help promote health and reduce risk for chronic diseases.

Promote a Healthy Lifestyle

Parents and caregivers can help prevent childhood obesity by providing healthy meals and snacks, daily physical activity, and nutrition education. Healthy meals and snacks provide nutrition for growing bodies while modeling healthy eating behavior and attitudes. Increased physical activity reduces health risks and helps weight management. Nutrition education helps young children develop an awareness of good nutrition and healthy eating habits for a lifetime.

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