It’s no secret that children all over the world are putting on too much weight. In the US, an astonishing one out of three children are overweight or obese. Even in China, obesity rates for children are rising. Being overweight as a child can lead to many diseases as an adult, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, and cancer. Also, overweight kids have lower self-esteem and higher risks for depression. So what can we do to stop this epidemic?
The first step parents should take is to find out where your child fits on a Body Mass Index (BMI) chart. If your doctor isn’t already doing this, find a childhood BMI calculator online. A child above 85 percent is considered overweight, and above 95 percent is obese.
There are quite a few weight loss approaches that most doctors can agree on; one is that diets almost never help, at any age. Any diet plan designed for quick weight loss will fail long-term, and leave people heavier than before. The healthiest option is always slow and steady weight loss. For many children, losing a pound a week through conscious changes in diet and exercise routines, is appropriate.
Another major approach involves cutting back on TV time. The American Academy of Pediatrics just published a major policy statement stating, “The evidence linking excessive TV viewing and obesity is persuasive.” They specifically recommend a ban on fast-food advertising in all children’s TV programs, as well as setting specific limits on TV time. They also detail multiple studies that say having a TV in the bedroom is another independent risk factor for obesity, both for children and adults.
It’s important that there is a family effort. Parents need to lead by example; it’s much harder for a child to lose weight if their parents are also overweight and don’t exercise. Of course, the main treatments for obesity are obvious: more exercise and eating proper foods in moderate amounts. Many studies have shown that eating a nutritious breakfast is crucial for a child’s physical growth and performance in school. As for diet recommendations, the most obvious choices to eliminate are sodas and fruit drinks. Any child drinking a daily soda is adding extra pounds of fat each year, and increasing their risk for diabetes and teeth problems. Most fruit juices are poor substitutes for natural fruits and should be used at a minimum. For exercise, most kids should be getting 60 minutes a day, but this can be broken up into multiple sessions. The key is finding something they love to do. And don’t forget that any exercise is better than nothing!
Another effort involves reviewing food available at school. This fall, milk producers in the US are all reformulating their flavored milk to have a third less sugar and calories. Find out what your child’s school is up to.
Parents who want to learn more about childhood obesity and how to fight it can find excellent resources at healthychildren.org, run by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also, the American Academy of Family Medicine at familydoctor.org offers many tips on weight loss for all ages.
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Dr. Richard Saint Cyr is a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, and the Director of Clinical Marketing and Communications. He runs the blog