Our children, for the first time in two centuries, are predicted to live shorter lives than our current generation. Up to five years shorter. Based on a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, much of this is related to the significant rise in obesity. Obesity is not just a problem in the United States - In fact, every country in the world has seen a rise in obesity over the past ten years. Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease and depression. In adults, obesity is very difficult, sometimes impossible, to treat or reverse. Luckily, in most cases, it can be prevented and it must start with our youngest generation! As parents and caregivers, we have the power to help our children have a healthy, positive relationship with food. With all of the information available online, it’s hard to know what is accurate and how to make the right nutritional choices for your child. This article will review some basic facts about obesity and will provide ways that you can participate in paving a better way for our children.
When making food choices for your children, here are a few guidelines that can help simplify how you shop and what you prepare:
Avoid foods that are highly processed.
If there are more than five ingredients in general, put it back! If there are multiple ingredients that you cannot pronounce or don’t recognize, put it back!
If the first or second ingredient is sugar, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, put it back!
Limit or avoid white bread, white rice and white pasta.
Look for breads that lists WHOLE grains as the first ingredient and avoid refined flour. Replace white rice with brown rice or other grains such as bulgar wheat, wheat berries or quinoa. There are many whole grain pastas available as well. Note that gluten free products are often processed and nutrient deplete, so reading labels is important.
Increase the amount of vegetables and fruit on the day.
Try to get three to five servings of ½ cup of fruit and vegetables each day – the more the merrier! Variety is encouraged!
Focus on whole foods that don’t come in a package as well as fruits and vegetables, and generally you will serve your children well.
What exactly is obesity?
Simply put, obesity refers to excess body fat. For adults, obesity is determined by Body Mass Index (BMI), which is the ratio of weight to height of an individual. The higher the ratio, the more likely the person is to have excess body fat, which increases their risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, heart problems, depression, and even joint problems. In children, one standard deviation away from the normal growth curve for their age and height is considered overweight, and two deviations away is considered obese. In adults, a BMI over 25 is considered overweight, and over 30 is considered obese.
Obesity Trends in Recent Years
Trends in the past ten years have shown a rise in childhood obesity, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finding that around 12.7 million children in the U.S. alone were obese in 2014, or about 17% of children (2). This marks a 10% increase in obesity in children overall; obesity in children from lower-socioeconomic status families has increased from 5% in 2006 to 45% in 2011 (7 years ago!) (1).
Let's talk about what causes obesity, and what you can do about it!
Cause: Lifestyle of the parents is the lifestyle of the children
What you can do
What’s good for your children in terms of physical activity and eating is also good for you! Try to make small changes each day or week to make your routine include more physical activity and more whole foods!
For example, you could choose 2-3 meals to make from scratch each week (if this is already your habit, add a couple more!) and involve your kids in the decision-making process. Set aside time to go to the store and get what you need – bring the kiddos if you can! Many children nowadays don’t know what their food looks like before it ends up on their plate, so a trip to the produce aisle is never a bad idea.
You could also begin to take a walk around the block with the kids each day after dinner, and/or set aside time to go to the nearest swimming pool or park on the same day each week. Establishing routine physical activity behaviors like this while your children are young will prime them for choosing a physical activity routine for themselves as they get older. Healthy kids à healthy adults!
Cause: Food in schools
It’s no secret that school lunch in America could use a total makeover. Pizza, pasta with sugary tomato sauce, cookies, and sugar-laden drinks are ubiquitous in the cafeteria. The “salad bar” options are often unappetizing to students whose hungry stomachs crave something more filling than a few pieces of lettuce and tomatoes with high-calorie, low-nutrient dressings. While schools follow regulations for providing a certain number of servings of “fruit and vegetables” on each child’s plate, the definition of both things gets stretched almost as thinly as the operating budget for food services.
What you can do
Pack a lunch! While that may seem daunting (What should my kids eat? Will this be enough? I have no time for this!), once it becomes habit, it will save you money and keep your kids’ bodies and minds functioning at a much happier level than school lunch might allow.
Luckily, here at The Happy Lunch, we’ll be providing balanced, nutrient-dense lunch recipe ideas to make your life easier!
Cause: Food education
Health education school programs often have a brief chapter on nutrition, but as with school lunch, there is more to be done to set our children up for life-long physical wellbeing. Programs at the community level, such as at the YMCA, provide nutrition and cooking education to kids and parents – these are hands on and quite a bit of fun! However, not every family will ultimately enroll in these courses due to time, money, or other constraints. Food education, especially when children are toddlers, kindergarteners, and elementary school students, falls on the shoulders of the parents.
What you can do
Take your children to the grocery store with you once or twice a month! While this may make your trip longer, your kids are likely to learn more about where their food comes from, how to prepare it, and open their eyes to all the possibilities in the kitchen! Hands-on learning is often the most effective learning.
Cook together! If they are supervised, your kids will keep all of their fingers, toes and noses while they learn to cut a bell pepper or squash. You can even have them taste some new veggies and fruits as you prepare them – exploration is the best education!
When choosing what to eat, talk about it! Kids are always listening, and they will not forget why, if you must have it, dark chocolate is a better option than a handful of M&Ms. The small details that seem either trivial or too complex to tell children are the same details that they will bring up three days later as you reach for a gummy worm even though an apple was right there. (“Oh darn! Thanks for reminding me sweetie, I’ll have the apple instead because it has healthy sugar AND fiber AND vitamins!”)
Cause: Recess and outdoor activities vs. TV and video game time
Our kids don’t get enough recess time. At the middle school level, what once was 20 minutes outside turns into 15, and in high school, most students have only a 30-minute break to eat. This creates a habit of sitting for hours on end, and students who don’t go to sports practice, theatre, or other extracurricular activities after school often end up sitting for a few more hours each day.
What you can do
Teach your kids to love movement. Take them to the park, go on a bike ride, learn to dribble a soccer or basketball or to skip rope – anything goes. Humans were not meant to spend as much time sitting as we do, and kids know that! Have you met a toddler who didn’t choose to run around the house, constantly play with their toys, or want to do something otherwise active? If you partake in physically active behaviors with your kids, they will continue to choose activity over inactivity for the rest of their lives and will not fall prey to childhood obesity.
1) Addy, S., Engelhardt, W., & Skinner, C. (2013). Basic Facts About Low Income Children. Retrieved February 3, 2017, from
2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2011–2014.
Retreived from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db219.htm