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Spotlight on: Childhood Obesity

He has your quick wit and strong will, but has he inherited your approach to wellness? Kids often pick up behaviors – good and bad – from their parents. When it comes to our kids’ health, we can’t afford to set a poor example.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of swimmingobese or overweight children and teens in the U.S. has tripled over the last 30 years, now up to approximately 32 percent. Unless this trend is addressed, this generation will suffer more health problems at an earlier age, including diabetes and heart disease.

It’s Not About Weight

“Weight doesn’t necessarily affect heart health,” says Angela Hasemann, registered dietitian with the Children’s Fitness Clinic at UVA Children’s Hospital. “But the same behaviors that cause childhood obesity – eating too much, eating unhealthy foods, drinking sugary beverages, lack of exercise – can cause health problems.”

These behaviors lead to high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which over time can damage blood vessels and cause early-onset heart disease. “If a child is overweight, a doctor is more likely to check his lipid levels, but a thin child may also have elevated levels if he is taking part in these unhealthy behaviors,” says Hasemann.

You Wield More Power Than You Think

So where does it end? How do we teach our kids to make healthier choices? First Lady Michelle Obama is taking on this challenge with a national initiative called Let’s Move, which encourages children to eat right and be more active. But the solution isn’t going to come from the White House – it has to come from your house.

“Kids learn by modeling their parents,” says Hasemann. “They pay attention to the way we eat. So parents have to set an example and create an environment for kids to be healthy.” This can be a challenge for many parents, especially those who struggle with their own weight or whose adolescent children have cemented their unhealthy patterns over time. But, says Hasemann, parents have a lot of power.

To find the strength, consider the lifelong health benefits of habits you instill now … including a longer lifespan. (The New England Journal of Medicine reports that obese children are more likely to die before the age of 55.) Hasemann says it is possible to reverse damage to the heart. “High triglycerides are the easiest to change; they can be normalized by diet alone in about six months. Cholesterol may take a bit longer to lower – approximately one year with some serious work.”

Break the Cycle

Here’s what to do if your child’s habits are affecting his health:

Lead by example.
If you are active and eat a healthy diet, he is more likely to do the same. Show, don’t tell, him how to make the best choice – reach for a water bottle instead of a soda, for example.

Include children from the start.
Plan your meals with your child and put some of his favorite produce on the menu. Allow him to participate in shopping and preparing the meal.

Watch portion sizes.
For some, it’s not so much what they eat but how much. A kid-sized serving should be about the size of his palm, says Hasemann.

Push the produce.
Make half of every meal fruits and vegetables.

Limit sugary beverages.
The recommended amount of juice kids should consume is just 6 oz. per day, says Hasemann. But most of our kids drink much more than that – and the calories add up fast. Offer low-fat milk or water to your child and cut down on the rest.

Get moving.
Encourage kids to limit their screen time (2 hours per day, max) and amp up their playtime. They should be active at least 60 minutes per day.

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