Childhood obesity is a serious public health concern (World Health Organization, 2020). Increased sedentary lifestyles and changes in dietary habits have contributed to the issue, but it is likely that recent restrictions on physical/play activities and the switch to remote learning due to the COVID pandemic have also had a significant impact on the psychological and physical health of children. It is critical to take action. Childhood obesity is associated with the development of serious illnesses in adulthood, including diabetes, heart disease, and even certain types of cancer (World Health Organization, 2020). Addressing childhood obesity now to avoid future consequences takes planning, creativity, and above all a commitment to lifestyle changes, not only for your child, but the entire family.
Setting reasonable and realistic goals for increasing exercise and improving eating habits is possible with one important caveat: change doesn’t happen overnight. Small steps done each day can make tasks more manageable and lead to positive results for your child over time. Note: prior to establishing any new exercise routine and/or dietary change, it is always advisable to begin the discussion first with your pediatrician who can offer important information and guidance.
Increased time at home over the past months has offered a great opportunity for families to cook healthy meals together and explore new culinary adventures. Start with going to the local library or looking on-line with your child to find an easy to prepare, healthy recipe. Have your child pick out something that peaks their interest. Together, make a well-planned food list before entering the grocery store. If you are comfortable, let your child lead the way. This approach can build self-confidence while developing your child’s organizational and planning skills. If your child is young, make a fun song or silly poem about what you need to buy at the grocery store. The main point is to make shopping an enjoyable experience for both you and your child as you reinforce healthy food choices.
Another suggestion is to keep a food diary with your child for one week. You may be surprised at the results. We all know the old food pyramid from high school health class. Did you know that this approach was totally revised in 2011? MyPlate is a graphic representation that shows recommended portions of each food category: vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy protein. Children love visuals. Print out a copy of MyPlate and put it on the refrigerator as a reminder of healthy nutritional choices. Activity sheets are also available to download at https://www.myplate.gov/life-stages/kids. Helping your child learn to make smart food choices engenders a sense of control and provides a lifelong path to improved nutrition
For fun, try mindful eating. Prepare a healthy snack with your child and together, commit to taking slow, thoughtful bites. No talking allowed! You and your child should focus on the smell, taste, texture, and sensations of the experience of eating, noticing every detail possible. Afterwards, process the experience together. Many of us, including our children, are on auto-pilot when it comes to eating. By slowing down the process, we gain a new appreciation for the fuel our body needs to function.
Have you taken a mindful walk with your child lately? Similar to mindful eating, mindful walking focuses on taking each step slowly, with deliberation. Synchronizing your steps with your breathing makes the experience more relaxing and can even bolster mood. You don’t know what you can see until you teach your child to focus on the small things – the way the leaves glisten in the morning, the crunchy sound of your boots on the trail, the bird singing in the distance, the height of the big tree, the smell of the evergreen. Mindful walking is exercise, but with the reward of really opening our eyes to the wonders that surround us.
What are your child’s favorite activities? Do they enjoy bike riding, playing catch, swimming, or walking the family dog? To tackle childhood obesity, we as parents need to guide and mentor our children as to how they can create their own unique path to establishing a healthy lifestyle. Through exploration with a twist of fun and creativity, you can help your child find what works for them to lead their healthiest and most fulfilling life. Setting this goal can reap many benefits: quality time spent together as well as the gift of improved physical health and increased emotional wellbeing for you, your child, and the whole family.
Kari K. Collins, PhD
World Health Organization. (2020). Noncommunicable diseases: Childhood overweight and obesity.