Parents can often be heard saying, “I just want my child to be happy and healthy.” While there are so many factors that go into those loaded terms, weight is not one that is often openly discussed. People are often uncomfortable talking about weight. And, historically, people have often believed a popular myth that children will outgrow an overweight status. Newer research is proving the opposite to be true.
- In fact, childhood obesity has been found to not resolve spontaneously with age, but rather, overweight children are much more likely to continue to gain weight and be overweight as adolescents and adults. This is concerning since, approximately 1/3 of children in the US are overweight (body mass index [BMI] > 85th percentile) or obese (BMI > 95th percentile).
- Pediatric obesity has been shown to be related to increased medical, psychological, and social problems. For example, the following conditions have been researched to be associated with pediatric obesity: type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, sleep apnea, orthopedic problems, depression, anxiety, disordered eating, poor body image, social exclusion, and low self esteem.
How can we make positive changes?
- First, and foremost, talk with your child’s pediatrician. He or she can accurately assess whether your child’s weight is considered overweight. An appointment with a nutritionist to develop a food plan that is tailored for your child may also be discussed at this time.
- Increase physical activity (research shows that the more time spent in sitting activities, the higher likelihood of obesity in a child – findings show that children should spend less than 2 hours a day – outside of school- in sedentary activities).
- Parents can be positive role models – they can demonstrate healthy eating patterns, healthy activity levels, and positive attitudes about both (e.g. refrain from saying, “ugh, I have to exercise and I hate it.”)
- Begin Appetite Awareness Training, which encourages children to focus on their hunger and fullness cues to guide food consumption rather than external triggers (e.g. amount of food on plate, emotional [eating when sad] or environmental [eating when watching a TV] triggers for eating, etc).
- Refrain from using food as a reward. By saying, “if you are good by grandma’s you’ll get ice cream” only reinforces the concept of unhealthy snacks having a positive association and healthy eating patterns having a negative association.
- Families can seek therapy to address the behavioral lifestyle. In family based interventions, parents are regarded as key agents of change because a greater degree of parental involvement in behavior change is associated with better child weight outcomes. Early in most family intervention services, parents and children learn the energy balance equation, which considers that weight loss is achieved by decreasing energy consumption and increasing energy expenditure. Similarly, the child may benefit from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to address co-existing concerns of anxiety, depression, self image struggles, eating disorder symptoms, etc.
- Goal setting and self-monitoring are key components to any behavior change plans. Goals should be specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and have time parameters. Self-monitoring, or logging, daily progress has routinely be shown to be effective with any behavior change plans.
- Interventions that address impulse control and self regulation are also showing promising results in treating obesity. When children learn to delay gratification, plan ahead for times when cravings may occur, and focus their attention to their behavior change goals, they are able to gain life skills needed to be healthy in general.