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Tackling Childhood Obesity: Prevention and Treatment

It doesn’t take scientific studies to prove that obesity has become a serious health problem in our society. Too many people are overfed yet undernourished, and sadly, this also includes children. Diet-related diseases that were once solely found in older populations, such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and even coronary artery disease, are now showing up in children. Children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults and face an increased risk for many diseases, including cancer. Yet probably the most distress for obese children comes from the mental and emotional pain of being overweight.

Childhood obesity is hitting every corner of our society—nearly one out of every three children in America is overweight or obese. Even First Lady Michelle Obama has made it her goal to bring awareness to the seriousness of this problem. So how did we come to this point?

Why Are So Many Kids Overweight Today?

For decades, conventional nutritional wisdom has told us that weight gain and weight loss is a simple equation of calories in versus calories out. Yet a growing body of research shows that healthy weight maintenance and weight loss is more complex than originally thought. The flora in our gut, chemicals in our environment and food, conditions in the womb, sleep habits, and other more subtle factors can all influence body weight in children.

For example, research has found that babies delivered by cesarean section are at increased risk for becoming obese as children. Nearly a third of all babies in the U.S. are born via C-section—that’s over a million babies at increased risk for obesity each year. Babies who are given antibiotics before 6 months of age are also at increased risk for becoming obese, likely due to the effect of antibiotics on internal flora.

Some children are predisposed to obesity before they are even born. Having a mother who is overweight or who gains excess weight during pregnancy can be a factor. Not getting enough sleep or having irregular sleep habits is another risk factor for both childhood and adult obesity. There’s also another possible cause of childhood obesity that we can’t see, smell, or taste: chemicals.

Bisphenol-A (BPA), a commonly used chemical in food packaging and food containers, is quickly gaining a reputation among both researchers and the general public for its potential harmful effects. BPA is known as a hormone disruptor, which means that it mimics natural hormones like estrogen. BPA has also been shown to have harmful effects even at very low levels in the body. It turns out that BPA exposure is also a risk factor for childhood obesity.

A class of chemicals known as phthalates has also been singled out for raising the risk of obesity in children. Pthalates are quite common in baby toys, such as teething rings, plastic baby books, and soft-sided baby pools. Anywhere you see soft plastic, suspect that it contains phthalates, because the phthalates are usually what makes the plastic soft.

So while it’s easy to point the finger at too much TV and fast food, it’s clear that obesity in children isn’t quite as simple as that. Yet it would be foolish to deny the obvious: Many children today simply eat too many calorie-rich, nutrient-deprived foods and don’t get enough activity.

The Risks of Obesity in Children

Just as adults feel enormous pressure to lose weight and achieve a slender figure, children are also very sensitive to the media images and ideals that they are regularly exposed to. Children who are overweight or obese often feel self-conscious about the way they look and are more likely to suffer from social and emotional problems, which can even affect their academic performance.

In a painful catch-22, children who are obese are also less likely to be active. It’s not hard to understand why children who carry excess weight find it difficult or embarrassing to try to keep up with their normal-weight peers when it comes to sports and activity.

Over the long term, overweight children are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and sleep apnea. As adults, they may also be more vulnerable to certain types of cancer, such as urothelial and colorectal cancer. 

The good news is that researchers have found that when childhood obesity is successfully addressed early on, nearly all of the increased risks for disease are wiped out. Kids’ weight is obviously linked to their lifestyle and health habits, so it makes sense to take simple, practical steps to help kids reach their full potential in both health and happiness.

The Holistic Solution for Obesity in Kids

One thing is clear in the childhood obesity epidemic: Kids are vulnerable to the same dietary and lifestyle habits that have been escalating diet-related diseases in adults. Just as there is no "magic pill" for obesity in adults, kids also need to take a holistic approach to wellness in order to thrive and be healthy and slim. That means improving overall health and well-being, not just focusing on losing weight.

Here are 8 proven steps parents and caretakers can take to help children maintain optimal weight and vibrant health:

  1. Set a good example: Kids are enormously influenced by the adults and role models they have around them. Studies have shown that children who are born to overweight parents are more likely to be overweight themselves. If excess weight is an issue in your family, don’t focus on the numbers on the scale. Instead, focus on modeling healthy eating and exercise habits. Avoid making the child feed bad or guilty for being overweight—this can lead to psychological issues and make their weight problems even worse. Rather, focus on making positive choices that will lead to better health for the entire family.
  2. Say goodbye to BPA: BPA is a proven chemical offender that raises your child’s risk for obesity (and other diseases down the line) and is relatively easy to eliminate. So take a look around your kitchen and see what needs to go. Anything made of polycarbonate (which contains BPA), such as polycarbonate water bottles and drinking cups, needs to take a hike out of your kitchen. Plastic storage containers are ideally replaced with glass, or some other BPA-free material. Canned goods are another huge offender—virtually all canned goods have BPA in them unless the label specifically says “BPA-free.” Even organic canned goods may contain BPA, so don’t be confused by the “organic” label. Cans are convenient but can be readily replaced. For example, beans can be cooked in large quantities and frozen in convenient amounts for future use. Tomato paste can now be bought in glass jars. Some brands of organic coconut milk use BPA-free cans, so that’s an easy switch. Corn and other vegetables can be bought frozen and still have the convenience of cans—without the chemicals. Instead of canned soups, make a large batch once a month and freeze in meal-size, BPA-free containers.
  1. Supplement with probiotics: A growing body of research suggests that our intestinal flora has a profound effect on our health and even our body weight. As mentioned earlier in the article, babies who are exposed to antibiotics before the age of 6 months are more likely to become obese as children. This is likely because antibiotics wipe out the friendly flora in babies’ guts and reduce the variety of intestinal bacteria. Other studies have shown differences in the intestinal flora between normal-weight people and those who are obese. With all the proven health benefits of probiotics, it makes sense to make sure your children are benefiting from a good probiotic supplement and eating foods that contain friendly bacteria, such as yogurt and kefir.
  1. Practice positive parenting: Just as many adults are sensitive to emotional stress and overeating, so are many children. Kids who feel stressed or insecure may easily turn to food for comfort. For example, one study found that toddlers who are securely attached to their mothers have a lower risk of becoming obese as children. Try to incorporate plenty of encouragement, affection, and family time together to ensure your child’s emotional well-being.
  1. Limit screen time: Not surprisingly, children who spend more than 2 hours a day in front of a computer, TV, or video game are more likely to gain excess weight. Kids need lots of activity and time outdoors! While it may be hard to resist the social pressures your children face to use tech products, as a parent you can take charge of your kids’ health and put a healthy limit on sedentary activities. Replace screen time with positive, fun activities such as family time outdoors, sports, playing with friends, or other more rewarding activities.
  1. Make mealtime family time:  Regular family meals cut the risk of obesity and are the perfect time to model healthy eating habits. Preparing healthy meals together, spending quality time together, and eating slowly and leisurely are all accomplished at once when mealtimes become family time. If your family’s meals are less than ideal from a nutritional standpoint, start making gradual improvements and involve your family in the process. The more kids are involved in the food preparation process, the more willing they will be to try new vegetable dishes. You can even take it a step further and start a family vegetable garden, which will make kids even more eager to reap some of the fruits of their hard work.
  1. Have physical fun: Staying active is essential for good health, whether you need to lose weight or simply want to stay healthy. For many families it takes an extra effort to make sure kids get the physical activity they need. Many kids take the bus or catch a ride to school rather than bike or walk, and many schools have scaled back physical education due to budget cuts and other constraints. So it’s more important than ever that parents take the lead in children’s physical activity. Many communities have sports programs that are free or very inexpensive. If your child doesn’t like the first sport he or she tries, keep trying different sports and activities until one clicks. Your family can also take a walk together after dinner every night. On weekends, plan fun activities that involve staying active, such as swimming, hiking, picnicking, kayaking, or even just playing Frisbee.
  1. Maintain regular bedtimes: Not getting enough sleep is a significant risk factor for obesity in both children and adults. It’s important for children not only to get enough sleep, but also to sleep on a regular schedule. Incidentally, having a regular bedtime is also proven to help with kids’ behavior, so both kids and parents benefit.

These simple steps will help create a healthier environment for both parents and children to thrive and avoid the many harmful effects of being overweight or obese.