by Eric Ball, M.D.
A common concern amongst both parents and pediatricians is the growing rate of obesity in our children. According to a recent study, the rate of obesity in six through ten-year-olds has doubled since 1980, and the rate in adolescents has nearly tripled! This epidemic of obesity is concerning for our future as obese children have a 70% chance of becoming obese adults. Some estimates place the cost of obesity and its related disorders at nearly $100 billion in the United States alone (and rising!). It is critical that we deal with the obesity epidemic now and encourage healthier eating habits in our children.
Most of us parents are busy with the day-to-day craziness of life as a parent. Between work, school, sports practices, and play dates, there is often little time to prepare a healthy meal, let alone to all sit down and eat together. I have therefore compiled some practical tips that I use in my family to ensure that we eat healthy foods as often as possible:
TIP 1: Be a smart shopper.
Nutrition begins at the grocery store. Once a food crosses into your home, your child will either eat it or there will be a big battle between you and him. If there are foods that you do not want your children to eat, don’t buy them. Until your child gets a car and a job, you are in 100% control of which foods he is offered.
It is best to shop in the periphery of the grocery store. The middle aisles are stocked with processed and frozen foods that are generally much higher in sugars, fats, and salts. Try to buy whole foods as much as possible. In other words, it is better to serve your kids apples than apple juice or apple sauce or (heaven-forbid) Apple Jacks.
TIP 2: Try make-ahead and 30-minute meals.
Try to make food ahead of time or learn a few quick recipes that you can whip together between soccer practices on a weeknight. In my house, two indispensable cookbooks are Cook’s Illustrated Best Make-Ahead Recipes and Cook’s Illustrated Best 30-Minute Recipes. In our family we try to meal plan on the weekend; we buy groceries for the week and make a few make-ahead dishes that we can freeze or store and use later in the week. Often, putting together a 30-minute meal in your kitchen takes less time than going to the fast food drive-in for unhealthy take-out.
TIP 3: Use smaller plates and fill them with fruits and vegetables.
A study in 2011 showed that serving food on an 8-10 inch plate instead of a standard 12 inch plate led to a 22% reduction in calorie consumption with the same feelings of satisfaction and fullness. Eating and fullness is not only biologic; there is a strong psychological impact as well. Using smaller plates will ‘trick’ your body into thinking you’ve eaten a full meal, even though you have eaten less.
In a similar way, filling your plate with healthy foods will help to fill you up with good stuff, leaving less room for unhealthy food. The government’s new nutritional guidelines (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/) recommend that you fill up at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables.
TIP 4: Do not use food as a reward.
Many of us make the mistake of using food (and especially junk food) as a reward for good behavior. Every day, several of my patients are taken to the ice cream shop across the street from the office as a reward for getting shots or acting well-behaved in the doctor’s office. Although this is a nice gesture, it subconsciously causes the children to equate fatty, calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods with good behavior. These same children are often ‘forced’ to eat their vegetables and learn that healthy foods are more of a punishment. This cycle of food rewards leads to a dysfunctional view of foods that we take into adulthood. Most people continue to ‘reward themselves’ in adulthood with fatty foods because they “deserve it”. Try using stickers, books, or toys as rewards and incentives and leave the food for mealtime.
TIP 5: Encourage your children to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
It is important to respect your children when they are not hungry. Everyone in the family should be served the same foods (you are not a short-order cook!) but it is the child’s responsibility to eat his food. When they chose not to eat their meal, they are often telling you that they are not hungry at that moment. It is best to excuse them from the table, save the food, and offer it to them later if they are hungry. The more you argue, fight, bribe, or bargain, the less likely they are to eat. Hunger is actually a better motivator.
One of the big risk factors for obesity is eating in the absence of hunger. Over the years, many people learn to eat for reasons other than hunger: they eat because they are socializing, they are mindlessly eating while watching TV, they are depressed, they are bored, etc. Infants will usually eat only when hungry but over time they can learn to eat without being hungry, which puts them at risk for obesity. When children eat to please their parents or because they are forced to eat or because there is a reward (usually more food!) for eating, their risk for poor eating behaviors goes up.
TIP 6: Lead by example.
Your child learns healthy behaviors from you. Make sure that you are eating healthy foods as well. Your child is much more likely to eat vegetables if he sees you eating vegetables as well. Try to sit down as a family as much as possible to eat together. Make that time stress and distraction free. Even those of us with the most hectic schedules can spare 15-30 minutes a day to sit down as a family, eat and talk. Studies consistently show that frequent family meals lead to lower rates of obesity.
The earlier you address poor eating habits, the easier they will be to fix. When making changes in the family, remember to do so gradually and involve all family members. If you are worried about your child’s weight or eating habits, please make an appointment to discuss this issue further with one of our providers.
The contents of this web site are provided as an informational tool. This is not intended to replace medical advice or care administered by a healthcare professional. Common sense should always be used when referencing this site. If, at any time, you feel your child is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.