Would you believe me if I told you that approximately nine million children are considered obese in the United States right now? Would you believe that Americans are paying approximately 147 billion dollars a year in medical costs related to obesity? Well, believe it.
These are just a couple of the frightening facts about the obesity epidemic in America today. Over the past 30 years, rates for childhood obesity have doubled for kids ages 2-5 and 12-19 years old. Rates have tripled for children between 6 and 11 years old. It affects both boys and girls of all ages, races and ethnicities.
The obesity epidemic is due to physical, social and economic environments that make it easy to take in more calories than needed, while making it hard to get in enough physical activity to burn away those extra calories. It sounds simple, however it’s anything but. When we have incessant advertising directly aimed at our kids promoting processed, high-sugar foods and drinks, an ever-increasing sedentary lifestyle, and a school social scene that provides a constant flow of junk food, it makes it quite a challenge to protect our children. Prevention is our biggest hope to change the dangerous course in which our children are venturing.
If we don't make a change as a society, our kids will continue to face terrible consequences including diabetes, cancer, liver disease, heart disease, and even infertility later in life.
Here are some simple steps that parents can take to help their children:
1. Give your kids whole foods as much as possible.
This means veggies, fruits and whole grains. Grains can be especially dangerous if we're not careful. Some breads are pretty much the equivalent of spoon feeding your child sugar. These breads use grains that are stripped of any real nutrients. Make sure the bread you're buying is whole grain. My favorite brand of bread right now is Ezekial 4:9. I haven't seen anything quite like it! You can find it in the freezer section, because it doesn't contain harmful preservatives.
2. Relax on the sugar.
Don't just take their beloved sweets away cold-turkey. This will cause anxiety, and distress. Instead, slowly introduce healthier foods, and let it be a natural transition for them. For example, I'm the room mother for my son's class in school this year, and for a few of their parties, I asked fellow parents to bring in healthy items rather than the typical cookies and cakes that are commonly consumed by the kids. A couple Moms brought in the usual sweet treats, which worked out nicely. The kids ended up eating mostly healthy, without even realizing it. Overall, it was received very well by both the parents and the kids.
3. Shop along the outer edges of your grocery store. Avoid the center isles!
All the fresh stuff is purposely placed along the sides of the grocery store, because it needs to be replenished quickly… because it’s natural, fresh, and can perish quickly. Remember, if the food you're buying has a long shelf life, you don't want it in your child's body (or yours). Generally speaking, the longer the shelf life of a product, the worse it is for your health. Perishable items usually have less or no preservatives and chemicals. These items include fruits, veggies and fresh cuts of meat. The rest of the stuff, which can last for years and years, will be in the center of the store for as long as it needs to be. These are the items that have all the preservatives and chemicals that we want to steer clear of. I take my kids through the fruit and veggie section, and let them pick whatever they want. That way, I know they'll eat it and love it!
4. Make sure they get some physical activity into their normal routine.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Kids are full of energy. Let them express it through their favorite sports and activities on a regular basis. This will naturally rev-up their metabolism and burn unnecessary calories.
5. Try to limit time spent watching television.
This one's also a no-brainer, but I must admit, it was a big challenge in my family. I grew up watching a lot of TV. The thought of turning it off caused me stress. If nothing else, I needed it on for background noise. But once I conquered this bad habit, I noticed a change in my kids. They became more creative with their time. Their school work improved, and so did their attention span. It was remarkable. Time spent in front of the television is time spent not being active, both physically and mentally. Not to mention, all the ads for unhealthy foods being implanted in their young minds.
6. Be an example.
This really goes without saying. But, if they don't see us practicing what we preach, it won't work. We can tell them to eat healthy until we're blue in the face, but if they don't actually see us do it, they won't do it either.
I have faith that we can turn this crisis around and get back on track. The food industry can hear us loud and clear. If we work together as a society, it will continue to send a message to the food industry as well as law-makers. I encourage everyone to take your own personal approach to helping this cause, whether it’s Googling some new healthy recipes for your family, supporting local health food stores, discussing healthier options with your child's teacher, or writing to your local representatives. Through these actions, our hunger for change will be realized.