Encouraging healthy habits like exercise and eating right early on helps stave off childhood obesity.
The government statistics about childhood obesity are shocking:
- Childhood obesity has increased more than fourfold among ages 6 to 11 in the United States
- More than 23 million children and teenagers in the United States ages 2 to 19 are obesity or overweight
- Nearly one third of America’s children are at early risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even stroke
- The current generation may have shorter lifespans than their parents
During this month of national attention on this epidemic, parents and responsible adult role models can surely do their part by encouraging the overall goal of living a healthier lifestyle, one that emphasizes healthy habits such as eating right and exercising regularly – whether a child is an infant, toddler, pre-teen, or teen.
A newborn's nutritional needs are met almost entirely through breastmilk or formula, but by six months dietary habits can begin to develop with the introduction of solid foods. The foods that a baby eats can shape preferences later in life.
Parents should seek to give infants solid foods – fortified infant cereals and strained fruits, vegetables, and pureed meats – that emphasize natural whole food flavors and that are not sweetened with added sugars. During this stage in life, it’s also well-heeded advice to avoid introducing fruit juices or any kind of sugar-sweetened drinks.
Tips for Toddlers and Preschoolers
As infants grow into toddlers, their energy grows and so do their appetites for snacks. Most snacks, unfortunately, come in the form of sodium, starch and fat – buttered noodles, potato chips, French fries – and too little protein, fiber and vitamins and minerals.
Parents can promote snacking on whole foods by having fresh whole fruits and vegetables readily available and in easy reach to children. Plus, they can encourage drinking of water and milk by keeping fruit juices and sugar-sweetened drinks such as soda pop out of reach.
By the time children are in preschool they may have already discovered sedentary activities such as television and videogames. However, adults can help children get the exercise they need by providing toys like tricycles and taking them to visit to the park and playground regularly.
Elements of Elementary School Age
When children reach elementary school, they are ready to learn the basics of making time for regular physical activity and making good food choices for maintaining a healthy weight.
Keeping kids moving can be as simple as getting them involved in regular activities: children can help with daily chores such as sweeping, vacuuming or gardening; or they can get signed up for team or individual sports such as swimming, gymnastics, dance, soccer, T-ball and basketball. The goal is anything that keeps them off the couch.
Parents can provide children with guidance on food choices by teaching them guidelines – such as those given by the Food Guide Pyramid – or by simply providing direction at home and when eating out. For example, at restaurants, adults can encourage healthy alternatives such as apples instead of French fries.
Preteens and teens begin to become more conscious of weight and body image. So, parents should keep a close watch for potential eating disorders or other possible unhealthy behaviors. Parents should reinforce positive behaviors such as healthy eating patterns and regular exercise.
Tweens with large appetites often need guidance in understanding the value of portion size, nutrient density, and balance in meals for nutrition and weight management. Parents can help by teaching how to watch amounts of calories, sugar, salt and fat, while identifying foods higher in fiber, protein, and calcium.
Exercise can begin with recreational activities, individual and team sports. At preadolescence, however, outdoor activities like hiking, boating, and snowboarding can also be exciting, which lend parents more opportunities to encourage physical fitness.
Health Begins at Home
At any age, there's no better way to help a child to adopt the habits of a healthy lifestyle than by setting an example – that means adults adopting healthy habits too.
Parents should become involved with exercise for children by picking activities that the whole family can enjoy such as bike rides, nature walks and games. Parents can also get children involved in preparing healthy meals at home and eating them together.
In addition, parents can reward children's healthy behaviors to keep them motivated, which invites them to adopt healthy habits for life that ultimately a better future.