It’s also one of the leading causes of preventable death. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five children is obese as well — a number than has more than tripled since the 1970s. Obese and even overweight children are at a higher risk of serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes and asthma, and they are more likely to become overweight adults who develop heart problems.
The causes of childhood obesity haven’t changed—genetic factors, poor eating habits, lack of physical activity, or a combination of all of these—so why has it increased so dramatically?
One of the reasons is that children are consuming a lot more sugar these days. The Mayo Clinic reports that kids’ diets average, conservatively, 80 grams of added sugar every day. That’s well over the recommendation of no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons). Studies have found that a large portion of this is consumed at breakfast, too. Added sugars are considered ‘empty calories,’ meaning they offer no nutrients beyond calories. What’s more, sugar has been found to be fairly addictive. Monitor your child’s sugar intake, especially sodas and sweetened beverages, and sweetened cereal. Processed foods contain a lot of sugar as well, so the best plan is to prepare meals at home with fresh ingredients whenever possible.
Increased use of screen devices and ‘screen time’ is another large contributor to growing obesity rates, as children, more-and-more, opt to interact with their phone or play games rather than engage in physical activity. Screen time also includes television watching, which American households do for more than eight hours per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers some good information on helping children develop healthy media habits and limit screen time.
Lack of activity is a growing problem. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children and teenagers should get 60 minutes or more of mostly aerobic activity per day. Included with that should be muscle and bone-strengthening activities three days per week. While they may be getting some physical activity at school, pursuing an individual sport or joining a team is generally a great way for kids to get more exercise and learn valuable life skills at the same time.
Since obese children are quite likely to become obese adults, it’s imperative they learn healthy habits early from their parents and caregivers. El Camino Hospital has a range of information and materials to help you understand the unique nutritional needs of children and teens, as well as ideas for encouraging more active lifestyles. But you also need to ensure that your children’s stress levels are in check, and that they get enough good quality sleep every night, since stress and lack of sleep can contribute to overeating and obesity.
For help in planning balanced and nutritious meals, make an appointment with an El Camino Hospital registered dietitian. HealthPerks members can make an appointment for a free 30 minute consultation by calling 650-940-7210.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.