Childhood obesity is a troubling and growing trend across the world. According to the American Heart Association, “about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963.” One in three! How did America get here so quickly? What can we do to stop this explosion in childhood obesity?
Brain Drain: Why Childhood Obesity Puts Us All at Risk
We know that children who are obese are at higher risk for Type II Diabetes, heart disease and a host of other health issues caused by excess weight, and that overweight children bear the brunt of bullying. But did you know that obesity can also harm your child’s ability to do well in school? The Journal of School Health did a study in 2009 demonstrating that “obesity is associated with poorer levels of academic achievement.” Another 2012 study by the University of Pittsburgh showed that participants “who were overweight had 4% less brain tissue than those who were of normal weight.” While it sounds like a small percentage, the study showed that this loss can be devastating on a young brain, resulting in problems like lowered IQ, reduced attention span, impaired memory retention and increased clumsiness. “Brain drain” caused by obesity is not just a danger for our children and our families, but hinders our society as a whole. The Program for International Student Assessment did a study showing American students were outperformed by 29 nations in math scores! No wonder America is falling so far behind in global academic rankings.
How To Help Your Child — And Stop This Trend of Childhood Obesity
If your child suffers a weight problem or you feel they are at risk for one, you can help them by making a few changes.
Model Healthy Living
In “Would You Put Your Child on a Diet?” Leah Segedie and Mom Generations founder Audrey McClellan reveal that it’s harmful to put your child on a diet. A better approach? According to Leah, “The entire family must change eating habits and activity levels.” As a parent, you are the most influential person in your child’s life. Watching your healthy lifestyle choices will help your children make good choices too. It’s also key to get the whole family involved. Leah writes, “Singling out one child is more damaging to them psychologically and that becomes more of a life-long issue. You have to be very careful not blaming the child for the change either.” While that Happy Meal is affordable and easy on a hectic schedule, your child can’t afford the empty calories, high sugar dosage and unhealthy fat content it provides. Providing healthy food for your children on a regular basis can be time consuming but you and your family will benefit with a balanced plate of nutrients for dinner every day. If you eat fast food or take out several nights a week, start by eliminating one fast food meal per week. Check out Pinterest to find meals that you can make in 30 or minutes or less — the same amount of time it takes to grab that drive-through food. A meal should contain a moderate serving of protein source, a moderate serving of healthy carbs and two vegetables, or a vegetable and salad. Use leaner cuts of meat and cook with fresh vegetables and mushrooms that are in season rather than too much packaged or bottled sauces, which tend to contain sugar, dyes, preservatives and more.
Stop Emotional Eating in Front of Your Children
Another problem is emotional eating – something kids learn from watching us. Watch how much you fill your own plate and be careful when you snack when you are feeling blue or reacting to bad news. Replace the cookies, chocolate and ice cream with healthier snacks such as celery with peanut butter, seasonal fruits like grapes or a smoothie made with kale, flax seeds and your favorite fruits. You will feel better and your children will follow your example — usually, when you’re not looking!
Rule Out Medical Issues
In addition, there can be medical issues at play when it comes to childhood obesity, particularly if no one else in your family is struggling with weight issues and you all have a similar diet. Your first stop should be your trusted pediatrician to rule out or address concerns such as metabolic or thyroid issues that may be contributing to weight issues.
Keep The End In Mind
Even if your child does not suffer from obesity, healthy eating promotes better brain function. After we removed chocolate for a time from my daughter’s diet, the teachers contacted me shortly after to say how much she was thriving in school, in spite of a learning disability! If your child is struggling with difficult behaviors, self-control, ADHD, failing academics, poor focus and attention, etc., replacing packaged and fast foods with fresh and organic foods is an easy way to help them think more clearly. While this may not solve every problem, proper nutrition is a great way to help a child to perform his or her best in school.
Start Speaking Positively About Your Body
Actress Kate Winslet has recently been quoted as saying that growing up, she never heard a single woman she knew say, “I am so proud of my body.” The buxom actress is changing that. As she told Marie Claire magazine, “I accept my body. I accept how I am and make the best of what I am given.” This is a model that parents everywhere should adopt! It’s important that you foster your child’s self esteem before he or she can be motivated to lose weight. Just as many of us adults find that weight comes off easier when we like and accept our body as it is, children also need to be inspired to love themselves as they are before they can improve their lifestyle. I recently experienced this myself, when I wrote a swimsuit blog review. I was terrified and felt like I looked horrible in the photo but I got lots of compliments about my looks. We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to our bodies and our kids learn to mimic that. After that, I changed my negative scripts and started talking about how good I look for a woman my age. Feeling good about myself is motivating me to eat better and exercise — and my kids can see that.
It Takes a Village
Clearly, this childhood obesity issue is not just a problem for parents. Our society is not used to providing healthy food for children and many key players are to blame for this.
In the reality show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” Oliver discovered that her in the U.S., budgets and bureaucracy conspire to keep unhealthy food choices in our schools. The officials are ok with passing off high fructose laden ketchup as a vegetable — and it gets worse. The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity reported that just this past May, a critical food funding bill has been changed for next year, requiring the USDA to waive the requirements for schools to serve fruits and vegetables at every meal. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke out against the changes, saying that, “Parents have a right to expect that their kids will get decent food in our schools.” For children who have little access to healthy meals, children with behavioral problems and learning disabilities, and those with eating disorders or weight problems, the poor food options available will compound an already failing generations of school children.
With hospitals across the nation supporting partnerships with unhealthy fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and providing toxic food to patients, your child’s health is at stake even when seeking medical care. In Robyn O’Brien’s recent article, “Politics of the Plate”, she relates a defining moment in her quest for healthy food. Her son was in the hospital for an allergic reaction. As the doctors struggled to get a line into her child, a nurse entered the room “carrying a tray of Fruit Loops and red jello for my sick son.” Her eyes were opened to the failings of the medical society in the area of nutrition. In fact, most medical schools in the U.S. do not offer more than a semester on nutrition and its link to sickness and health. Hospitals and health care professionals need better training on proper nutrition and how food that can affect their patients.
Fast Food and Entertainment
The American Psychological Association compiled a series of studies in the paper, “The Impact of Food Advertising on Childhood Obesity. They found that “food industry advertising that targets children and youth has been linked to the increase of childhood obesity.” As reported here on Mamavation, McDonalds is one of the biggest culprits. Associating fast food with happiness, fun, and mainstream characters, this industry gets away with indoctrinating our kids at a young age and can lead them on the road to obesity. Read Leah’s full article on what happened when she spoke up at a McDonald’s Shareholder Meeting this May.
What Can a Parent Do?
There is power in armchair activism, believe it or not. Get involved at your school. Go to the board meetings, especially when they are making decisions about food. And cast your vote even in off-election years if your town’s school officials are on the ballot! Congress needs to hear your voice too: sign petitions, call their offices, email Senators — all of those small campaigns add up when you share and invite your friends and neighbors to join you in making laws that protect the food we feed our children. As for big corporations, you can empower your family with them as well. Writing letters, boycotting, showing up with protest signs, speaking your mind — all these actions have an effect on the brands and their reputations! Many companies really do want to know what they can do better so speak your mind — and share your letters with your friends! Need an example of successful campaigns? Here’s two: Subway changed it’s bread formula and Chipotle removed GMOs, thanks to Food Babe’s petition and work. We often think our voices are small, but join a community like Mamavation and you’ll see how far your message carries to protect our children from toxic advertising, lack of nutrition and toxic foods.