How to recognize and treat obesity in your (not-so-) little one
The problem of childhood obesity is growing as quickly as an elasticized waistband at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Today’s kids are bigger than ever. Though that might seem obvious, to the moms and dads of those kids, it’s not. According to Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at Cleveland Clinic, sizing up your chubby-cheeked cherub is trickier than it looks. And, because parents don’t have a good sense of whether or not their kids need to slim down, they’re not likely to do anything about it. As the saying goes, the first step is admitting there’s a problem. So let’s just get it out of the way here: Hello, Houston? We have a very BIG problem.
According to Dr. Roizen, what you see on the playground is not an accurate gauge of what your kids should look like. The percentage of overweight children has more than doubled in the last 30 years. Now one-third of all U.S. children are overweight — and 17 percent of them are obese. “Every other kid that a parent sees is overweight,” says Dr. Roizen. “But what is typical is not healthy.”
Numbers Don’t Lie
So how can parents assess what their children should look like? Use a BMI calculator for children and teens (you’ll need their height and weight), or have your doctor plot their measurements on the growth charts developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A pediatric BMI calculator is usually a reliable indicator of whether a child has a weight problem. However, if your child is unusually broad or muscular (think Mr. T in his formative years), you may get a false positive. Unlike the adult version, the BMI tool for kids is gender- and age-specific to account for those wily growth spurts. A BMI over 95 percent generally means your child is obese and should be evaluated by your family doctor for weight-related health issues, like hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and sleep apnea. If your bambino’s BMI is above 85 percent, he or she is likely overweight, and it’s time to discuss healthier lifestyle options.
My Metabolism’s Fallen and It Can’t Get Up
That does not mean you should reach for diet shakes or calorie counters, warns Dr. Roizen. Erase the word diet from your vocabulary. (You don’t need an abacus to know it’s a four-letter word!) Though immediate results are tempting, quick fixes don’t work. According to Ellen Rome, MD, MPH, head of adolescent medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, unhealthy dieting may actually increase children’s risk of obesity, because it can slow their metabolism way down. Don’t worry, you can revive your child’s sluggish metabolism with a sensible eating plan. That means feeding their body the nutrients it needs — and getting rid of the junk it doesn’t.
Movin’ on Down (the Scale)
Instead of a diet, what you really want, says Dr. Roizen, is a change in activity level and food choices, so they end up being healthier overall. In terms of weight loss, it’s a slow process, but one your kids can easily live with. “It doesn’t take much,” he says. “Have your kids eat 100 fewer calories a day and burn an extra 100 calories a day. They can do that by adding 20 minutes of walking and subtracting one or two cookies.”
For some, even that may be easier said than done. “It’s much tougher for kids to be thin now than it was 30 years ago, because cheap, lousy food wasn’t available the way it is now. It’s very easy to drop into a fast food restaurant and get 900 extra calories for two dollars,” says Dr. Roizen. In order to reverse that trend, “We have to make it easy for our kids to do healthy things and hard for them to do unhealthy things.” That means do not go to Burger Mart, do not pass the candy store, do not collect 200 extra calories!
Your Get-Thinner Game Plan
If this all sounds a bit like Monopoly to you, you’re catching on. The more closely you can make efforts resemble family game night, the better, because family participation is key. According to a study in the journal Obesity, child weight management programs that involve the whole family are scientifically proven to battle child obesity — and improve self-esteem in the process.
Here, your game plan to living in charge and not-so-large:
Play copycat. Remember that ad: Parents who use drugs have kids who use drugs? Well, the same goes for food and exercise. If you down supersized sodas and nachos as a midafternoon snack, so will your kids. “Children will do what they see you do, not what you tell them to do,” says Dr. Roizen. You must practice what you preach.
Hide and don’t seek. If certain foods trigger overeating, it’s the parents’ job to keep them out of sight. The easiest solution: Don’t bring junk food into the house. “Make the tough decisions for your kids,” says Dr. Roizen. Leave fruit out on the table where your kids can see it.
Make family time active time. “Go for a walk every night with your kids — you’ll be amazed what they tell you about,” says Dr. Roizen. Even if you hate exercise, encourage your children’s pursuits. A child’s physical activity is determined less by parents’ athleticism and more by parents’ enthusiasm.
Think like a thin family. A study in the journal Pediatrics shows children are less likely to be obese if they eat dinner as a family, get enough sleep and limit TV time. According to Dr. Roizen, even video games are better than TV, because you have to have both hands on the controller, which means kids are less likely to snack. Limit all screen time to two hours a day.
Give praise. Research shows — and playgrounds attest — that kids who are overweight are more often targeted by bullies, which can lead to a negative self-image and depression — all of which can fuel more weight gain. Criticism, and even kindhearted teasing, can take its toll, so a parent’s best bet is to not make their child’s weight a topic of discussion. Instead, educate them about the importance of being healthy, and compliment them often — at least three times a day!
For more advice about how to raise healthy kids, visit Dr. Ellen Rome.
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