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Common Challenges: Dealing with childhood obesity

Child Obesity is an epidemic that affects 16.3% of adolescents and children and over the past two decades the number of children who are obese has doubled while the number of adolescents has tripled.   Not only does obesity affect children’s self esteem but it is also a precursor to many serious and chronic diseases such as sleep apnea, asthma, hypertension (high blood pressure), and Type 2 Diabetes.

Most find it surprising that obesity can be diagnosed as young as two years old. We still think of toddlers as dependent little beings unaffected by their habits, likes, and dislikes.  The truth is that body mass index (BMI) should be assessed starting at two years and compared with growth charts.  Children whose weight is greater than 95% are considered obese.  The healthy rolls parents look for when feeding their infant child to assess nutrition status become more of a risk factor at age two and many pediatricians and dietitians are recommending initiating changes at this young age.

We all know that childhood obesity is a problem the question is can it be prevented or turned around?  As a registered dietitian I think the answer to both of these questions is yes.  First and foremost it’s important to teach your toddlers healthy habits. This weighs heavily on the parents and is very challenging especially as most toddlers are extremely picky. 

First things first; begin habits at the toddler age.  If your child is past this, no worries, you can start tomorrow.  Focus on fresh or frozen foods.  Avoid the canned and pre packaged foods as they are filled with added sodium, sugar, and genetically modified food that drives calories up and fresh nutrients down.  Insure your children are eating lots of fruits and veggies.  If fruits are easier it’s okay to offer a dipping sauce for the vegetables to get them to a point where they will at least try the vegetables. Protein is usually difficult to introduce to your children. Try different lean meats focusing on staying away from too many hotdogs, chicken nuggets, and other easy but high fat and high calorie traps.  If you are lucky enough to get your children to eat meatloaf or chili throw in tons of veggies. When it comes to milk all children should switch from whole milk to skim at two years of age.  If your child complains keep at it as taste buds usually conform after about three months.  A good tip for mealtime is to have half of the plate be fruits and vegetables, one fourth starch, and one fourth lean protein

At snack time focus on low calorie and low fat foods. Fruits and vegetables are always a great choice and you can offer animal crackers, puddings, and yogurts as a start.  Focus on making good decisions when shopping. If you don’t have the high caloric snacks in the house it’s out of sight out of mind and they will eventually get the drift.  

In addition to monitoring intake it’s also important to instill physical activity as a habit with your children.  It’s recommended to promote physical activity at least thirty minutes a day.  This can be bike riding, playing kickball, dancing, or walking as a family.  The earlier children form these habits the more likely they are to carry the activities out as they age.

At the end of the day if your child is heavy or you are nervous about developing habits that may promote obesity bring it up at your next physical and ask for a referral to a dietitian who can help you get on track.  Most dietitians can provide meal plans, nutrition tips, pantry makeover, and grocery tours to help.  It’s time to stop this epidemic and get on board.  What do you do to keep your children healthy?

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