In the early 1970s, approximately 6.1 percent of children ages 12-19 in the United States were obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2011-2012, that figure had more than tripled to 20.5 percent.
This is problematic, considering that not only has the number of children with obesity risen in the country, but more kids are at risk of facing bullying, lower self-esteem and chronic health problems because of their condition. Additionally, children with obesity are more likely to continue to be obese as adults, the CDC reports, making them more susceptible to serious health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and several types of cancer.
It’s clear that the rapid growth of childhood obesity is a problem, but determining the best method of childhood obesity prevention is much more difficult. While childhood obesity can be caused by poor eating and physical behaviors, there are often other factors out of a child’s control that contribute to their health, including genetics, metabolism, sleeping habits or even their community. Additionally, easy access to cheap fast food, candy or snacks that are high in sugar and salt can make it difficult for children to achieve healthier eating options.
Still, there are steps that adults, children and health practitioners can take to combat this growing epidemic and help children live healthier lives.
Childhood Obesity Facts and Statistics
Before discussing steps that can be taken for effective childhood obesity prevention, it is important to understand the full scope of this issue.
- The percentage of high school students with obesity in Midwestern and Southern states was frequently higher than states in other parts of the country [CDC].
In 2017, New Mexico, Nebraska and Virginia all reported that 15% of their high schoolers were obese. States like Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas reported their percentage of high schoolers with obesity was between 20-22, among the highest in the country. Colorado was the only state whose percentage of high schoolers with obesity was less than 10. In 2003, there were no states in the country whose percentage of high schoolers with obesity was higher than 20. Most states have seen their percentage of high schoolers with obesity rise throughout 2017.
- Over 2.5 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese [World Health Organization (WHO)]
What is important to remember is that obesity can severely impact a child’s health beyond their weight. “Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of premature death and disability in adulthood,” according to the WHO. Additionally, children with obesity are more likely to remain obese as adults and be at higher risk of health ailments such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Many of these health afflictions faced by children with obesity don’t appear until adulthood. These may include musculoskeletal disorders or breast, colon and endometrial cancers, the WHO reports.
Additionally, children with obesity often face what the WHO calls a “double burden of disease.” While eating foods that can contribute to obesity and its related ailments, children may also experience under-nutrition, i.e., a lack of eating the proper nutrients and healthier foods. This can put them at risk for even more conditions, making childhood obesity prevention that much more important.
These actions include frequent teasing, bullying or social rejection due to their weight. Consider the findings of Dr. Julie C. Lumeng. She conducted a study of overweight children from different socioeconomic classes that were more susceptible to bullying. Ultimately, she concluded it was the child’s weight that was the primary factor in being bullied. This type of behavior has often left children with obesity suffering from such issues as depression, social isolation and low self-esteem.
- Children now spend more than seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)]
This is troubling, considering that one of the ways of working toward childhood obesity prevention is to encourage children to exercise and be active. But TV or video games aren’t entirely to blame. Children with obesity may be facing a lack of outdoor recreational facilities or even physical fitness programs within their own school. Furthermore, the HHS reports that only one in five homes had a park that was accessible within a half-mile, and approximately the same percentage had any sort of gym or other health-related center within that same distance.
Across the country, only six states require some sort of physical education class for grades K-12. If a particular child’s obesity is caused by genetics, the lack of external health resources at school or in their communities may keep them from pursuing more healthy habits.
Tips for Parents When Combating Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity is a widespread problem. For children with obesity, among the best resources they have are their own parents or trusted adults; individuals who can help encourage healthy eating, regular exercising and other healthy habits. Here are some tips to help parents combat obesity in their children.
When pursuing childhood obesity prevention for their own children, the first natural decision a parent might make is to prevent their children from eating less nutritious foods all together. Ultimately, one fast food meal or candy bar isn’t going to stop a child from achieving healthier eating habits. It’s the repeated consumption of these types of foods that is much more problematic.
Parents should remember, when addressing childhood obesity the key is moderation when it comes to banning unhealthy foods. Utilizing foods that have a diverse array of nutrients, while letting kids have the occasional hamburger or ice cream sandwich, can be much more beneficial to children facing obesity long term.
As children grow, their appropriate daily calorie intake will change. So even if their meals are rich in nutrients, they might be too high in calories, which may still lead to weight gain. But balancing calories doesn’t need to be as severe as researching the calorie count for every specific item a child eats throughout their day.
The CDC suggests encouraging healthy eating habits, including choosing healthier protein options such as lean meats and poultry, serving satisfying but reasonable portions and increasing water intake while decreasing beverages that are high in sugar. Parents can also find healthier options or alternatives when serving their child’s favorite meal. Additionally, families can invite their children to go grocery shopping or participate in ordering food so they can help pick and suggest healthy options.
- Encourage your child to participate in exercise and healthy activities [National Diabetes Education Initiative (NDEI)]
Maintaining a healthy diet is one of the most important steps in childhood obesity prevention. Another is exercise, ensuring that a child is healthy and active for a consistent length of time throughout the day. The NDEI suggests that parents and families include everyone in physical activity so a child who is obese or overweight doesn’t feel ostracized or left out. This may include anything from a basketball game to a walk through the neighborhood.
Additionally, parents can also find ways to make exercise more fun for their children. This may involve letting their child choose how they want to exercise that day, or potentially making a game out of exercise. It is the consistent repetition of exercise as well as family inclusion that can help a child facing obesity become healthier.
Beyond encouraging and promoting healthy eating and exercise, parents can effectively contribute to childhood obesity prevention by helping their kids understand just why these habits are beneficial. If a child has low self-esteem or is feeling down because they have been making poor eating decisions, parents can show their children that healthier foods can help them feel better. If a child who is overweight or obese is feeling stressed or anxious, parents can explain that physical activity may help them relax and feel better.
Tips for Children When Combating Childhood Obesity
Parents can be a powerful, positive force when addressing childhood obesity. But children themselves can take steps of their own to improve their health.
From texting or using apps on their smartphones to spending hours in front of the TV or computer at night, sedentary time is enjoyable. But it can be counterproductive to a child who is combating obesity. Putting a limit on how much time children spend on video games, on their laptops or some other digital or sedentary activity is a sound strategy. This approach to recreational time management will ensure kids still have time to pursue exercise and healthy habits while helping to prevent child obesity.
Just like with designing a healthy diet, the key to limiting sedentary time is moderation. One or two hours spent playing video games or on a computer isn’t a bad thing as long as the child still has the time and energy to engage in healthier activities as well.
Regularly following a healthy diet and exercise routine can become burdensome for children who are overweight or facing obesity, especially if they are trying to achieve a specific weight loss or health goal. Just as obesity can cause low self-esteem, so can failure to meet a certain self-imposed health benchmark.
Having children with obesity adopt a more positive outlook regarding their diet and exercise — without necessarily having a weight target like losing 25 pounds in three months — can often help children maintain healthy habits. Children who understand that achieving weight loss and improving health are gradual processes can still achieve their goals over time. They can work toward childhood obesity prevention while maintaining a positive attitude in the present.
The WHO recommends that children ages 5-17 spend 60 minutes of each day participating in moderate to more vigorous exercise and physical activity. But for children, this doesn’t necessarily mean they have to set aside a whole hour of their day solely for exercising. Children facing obesity can find other times in their day-to-day routine to exercise, as long as the total adds up to 60 minutes.
For example, if a child is given 45 minutes for lunch, they can spend 15-30 minutes taking a stroll outside while still under the supervision of school officials. Or if a child takes an elevator regularly, they can choose to take the stairs instead. Finding creative ways to exercise throughout the day can help make the experience more enjoyable for children with obesity while still allowing time for other activities.
Tips for Health Practitioners When Combating Childhood Obesity
Health practitioners like doctors, nurses, counselors and others can use their knowledge and position to help prevent childhood obesity. While children and parents will be the individuals who implement these daily habits, there are still specific steps that health practitioners can take to make a strong impact.
- Be careful about terminology and language when speaking to children facing obesity [National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases]
Obesity, after all, is often simply a measure of body mass index (BMI), a measure of body weight to height. Individuals who are labeled as “obese” rank in the 95th BMI percentile or higher of their respective sex and age group.
The main point that health practitioners must emphasize to children facing obesity is that they are unhealthy. It should be made clear that they are at immediate risk of experiencing health ailments now and more severe ones down the road.
- Explain to children that obesity isn’t always caused by poor eating and lack of exercise [Mayo Clinic]
A health practitioner can often be the first source of reliable information for parents or kids seeking information regarding childhood obesity prevention. Children and families might be aware that poor diet and lack of exercise are frequent causes of obesity, but that it isn’t always just these factors alone.
A health practitioner can effectively explain to children that elements such as genetics, communal environment, mental and emotional health or other health conditions can be contributing factors to their obesity. This can better help a child facing obesity to understand that it isn’t necessarily their fault or that they did something wrong, but that there are a diverse range of factors at play in their situation.
Learn How You Can Make an Impact as a Family Nurse Practitioner
One of the most important health professionals for a child and a family is a family nurse practitioner. These individuals are dedicated to compassionate care; helping both children and adults achieve healthier lives. They work tirelessly to assist with a range of health issues, including childhood obesity prevention; serving as both a source of knowledge and an inspiration for children who wish to improve their health. For those interested in this rewarding and impactful role, Bradley University offers its online Master of Science in Nursing program.