Just last week, I saw a 75-pound 4-year-old, an 8-year-old that was heavier than me, and a teenager that weighed in just north of 350 (and climbing). It’s truly disturbing. One of my favorite questions to ask school-age children at their routine health exams is if they can name three healthy foods; I have been amazed at their consistent inability to do so. The two most frequent answers so far have been “chicken” and “broccoli,” typically followed by “ummmm…I can’t think of any more.” Some of the more amusing (but equally concerning) answers have been “bread,” “Froot Loops,” and “hamburgers.” (My other favorite question is what they’ve learned at school in the past week, but I’ll save that for another post.)
Childhood obesity is real, and we all know it. There has been no shortage of government and media attention to this topic. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign has a great website about nutrition, exercise, and fostering a healthy lifestyle in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published an educational site for parents about similar topics. The Department of Agriculture has published Choose My Plate, another resource with nearly limitless information about healthy eating. The CDC has compiled several pages of statistics regarding childhood obesity. Schools are improving the quality of their meals (they still aren’t very good) and removing soda from vending machines. But those efforts alone can’t solve the problem—it’s all about what you buy your kids to eat.
How Kids Get Fat (simplified):
To gain weight, all you need to do is eat more calories than you burn.
(In reality, it’s far more complicated than that. We are constantly learning more about how the body works, and it turns out that there are some scary-sounding things like leptin, ghrelin, and microbiomes that all play a role in the process. But no matter how much we learn about biochemisitry, the final result is the same: if you eat crap and don’t exercise, you get fat.)
This is a touchy subject—it’s far easier to write about it than to look someone in the eye and tell them that their child is obese. I always emphasize to the children I care for and their families that I’m not bringing these issues up because I disapprove of the way they look, because I don’t like them, or because I’m just a mean guy. It’s because I know and care about long-term health consequences (type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, etc.) that, unfortunately, most kids can’t really grasp. It’s hard for an 8-year-old to make the connection between finishing off that bag of chips and not living to see his grandkids. Here are a few ways to take steps to foster healthy habits in your kids that will last a lifetime:
- No More Liquid Calories: One of the easiest ways to remove excess calories from a diet is to get rid of the calories kids drink. The only two fluids necessary for life and health are breastmilk (or formula) and water. Once a child is obtaining adequate nutrition from a solid diet, there is no need for them to ever drink anything other than water. Not juice. Not Gatorade. Not sweet tea (sorry, South Carolina). Each serving of these sweetened beverages contains about 110 calories, in a form that evades your body’s mechanisms for feeling full; for each daily serving, that turns into about 10 pounds of fat over a year’s time. There’s a great website that shows you pictures of how much sugar is in common drinks—it’s truly impressive. From a caloric standpoint, diet sodas seem like they should be better, but they don’t seem to have much of an effect. I recently had a father tell me that his 240-pound 12-year-old is still drinking regular soda because “I don’t trust diet sodas.” Well, I don’t trust type 2 diabetes. Drink water.
- Just Stop Buying It: There aren’t many 10-year-olds that can drive to the store, load up a cart full of groceries, check out, and drive back home to re-stock the fridge without a little bit of help. If your kids are eating junk food, it’s probably because you buy it. It is a lot easier, and can prevent quite a bit of strife, if you just keep it out of the house. If it’s not there, they won’t eat it. That’s much more reliable than trusting a 10-year-old to choose a pear over a pack of Ho-Hos. It probably wouldn’t be bad for the rest of the house either.
- Eat Things That Grow In The Ground: This is my simplified rule for deciding whether something is healthy or not. You don’t need to read nutrition labels when you pick up a quart of blueberries at the farmer’s market. If it grew in the ground, it’s probably healthy. If it was made in a factory, put in a box, and will survive another 3 years in your pantry, it’s probably not the best thing for you to eat.
- Stick To The Basics: Organic, gluten-free, paleo, GMO-free…nothing against these, but they are advanced courses. After you’ve started feeding your kids healthy food, you may be ready to pick one of these as the next step. But first, concentrate on choosing nutritious foods. Shop “the perimeter” at the grocery store—produce, meats, dairy; leave the processed foods in the middle for someone else’s children. I’d rather have my kids eat non-organic blueberries than organic cookies any day. Remember, you can grow organic cocaine; that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
- Kick Them Out: Make your kids get out of the house—assuming there’s a safe place for them to play. Better yet, go with them. Take them to the park, go on a walk, or ride your bikes together. Exercise has been shown time and time again to be helpful in preventing and treating a huge array of diseases. Remember, though, it’s a lot easier to drink or eat 200 calories than it is to burn them back off. Make it easier by limiting the number of calories they need to burn.