8 Ways Parents Can Prevent Childhood Obesity

The prevalence of childhood obesity is growing at steady rate worldwide. There are a number of challenges involved in addressing and treating obesity, which is why the focus is shifting towards preventing it in the first place.

On the basis of scientific literature, health care providers are becoming aware of what changes they should bring in their clinical practice to aid in prevention of childhood obesity. However, these recommendations should be made available to parents too.

Many obesity prevention studies involving parents demonstrate how parents can help their children develop healthful eating habits and physical activity habits. It is important for parents to understand how important their roles are in preventing obesity as they guide their child through critical developmental stages.

So I have put together 8 ways with scientific evidences by which you, as a parent, can prevent childhood obesity.

8 ways by which parents can prevent childhood obesity

A child’s development and behaviour is influenced maximum by parents which makes them important players in prevention of childhood obesity. Here are a few ways which are clinically proven as a measure against childhood obesity.

1.Offer a healthy nutrient balanced plate

You definitely don’t need to guess this one. As parents, providing children a healthy balanced diet and also normal portion sizes is perhaps the best thing you can do to prevent childhood obesity.

The way parents feed their children influences the manner in which children will learn to regulate their food intake. So what exactly would constitute a balanced diet?

A great blend of fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole grains and protein would be the answer. Use healthy oils like coconut and olive oil to prepare the dishes and water should be the first choice among beverages.

USDA’s MyPlate initiative provides great resources about balanced nutrition.  Another chart I came across gives detail regarding portion sizes for kids of different age groups.

In addition to providing healthy food, keep a tab on the not so healthy sources or even avoid them in totality. Intake of sugar sweetened beverages should be regulated.

A study reported that children (2-5 years) who drank more than 12 ounces of fruit juice a day were likely to be overweight than those drank less.  A good alternative would be unsweetened real fruit juices or even a whole fruit.

Absolute restriction of fast foods is not possible but providing healthier versions of the same dish is a wise decision.

What does this mean?
Providing children with a balanced diet with a variety of options is the strongest action you can take against childhood obesity. Healthier (as well as tasty) versions or alternatives to not so healthy foods can promote a child’s interest towards healthy eating.

2.Start moving

childhood obesity image 2Physical activity plays an important role in energy balance. An 8 year long study found that children (3-5 years) who were highly active had lower BMI in comparison to less active counterparts.

Parents should encourage outdoor play. Children who spend more time outdoors have higher physical activity.   Change in parent’s physical activity and family based obesity prevention programs have a positive impact on children’s physical activity levels.

A study  involving a combined physical activity and nutritional intervention reported that children without parental obesity experienced a significant decrease in BMI compared to those children with both parents showed obesity.

Your job is not over when you take kids to the parks but getting involved in their play is a part of your duty. Design fun games in your backyard which would involve you and your kids moving about and having a great time.

Encouraging older kids to take up a sport or signing up for dance classes is another option. With parental and professional supervision, if it interests your child, you can enrol them for yoga, gym or related activities.

What does this mean?
Increasing kid’s physical activities means faster burning of calories and excess fat. It also improves your child’s health quotient. Encouraging outdoor play or enrolling them for sports, dance and physical activity related classes are a few initiatives you can take.

By incorporating physical activity in your own lifestyle you will inspire your children to do the same.

3.Cut down screen time

Few studies establish a link between TV viewing, obesity and reduced physical activity . One study demonstrated that viewing TV and videos and having TV in the bedroom was liked with increasing prevalence of childhood obesity.

TV viewing reduces physical activity and gives rise to unhealthy eating habits. For example if you are eating a meal while watching TV you might not have a control over the portion size.

Also TV exposes children to advertisements promoting unhealthy food options thus altering their food requests and preferences. Even inadequate access to the Internet is likely to pose these problems. Studies show that reducing TV can reduce children’s BMI and obesity risk.

Limiting physical access to TV by avoiding TV in bedrooms can help limit its usage.  Parents can also help by limiting their own time for TV watching.

What does this mean?
Reducing TV and screen time improves a child’s physical activity levels, eating habits and sleep patterns. This would involve removing TV sets from your child’s room and regulating the time for watching TV.

It would be helpful to provide alternative activities to watching TV.

4.Pay attention to your child’s emotions

Rarely is childhood obesity treated as a psychological disturbance. Yet even young children recognize their weight issues and there is a stigma attached to anything that is far from normal. Normal weight children perceive overweight children as less healthy, less active and having poor eating habits.

childhood obesity image 1Even overweight children as young as 5 years old are aware of their own overweight status and assess all emotional and psychological factors associated with it in a derogatory manner.  Some studies suggest that overweight children have a low self esteem in comparison to normal weight children.

A number of behavioural factors could be the reasons behind your child’s overweight status: stress induced eating, eating disorders, depression, parent and family influences, binge eating, ADHD etc.

If this is the case then you as a parent can bring a massive shift in your child’s attitude. Your mental health and well being will reflect in your child’s personality. To deal with this aspect you will have to play a dual role of a parent and friend to your child.

Positive parent child relationship is associated with lower weight, healthy eating and more physical activity in children.  Increased motivation in family based guided weight loss programs is found to bring significant reductions in children’s BMI.

If there is any factor that is causing stress to your child, please take whatever possible steps to address it. Paying attention and expressing your concern towards your child’s weight will definitely encourage your child to address the same problem, especially if you are a mother .

If needed please consult a clinician to nip your child’s psychological problems in the bud.

What does this mean?
Addressing emotional problems can indirectly ameliorate your child’s overweight condition. Reducing stress from your side, from the family and instead motivating (but not pressurising) the child to eat healthy and be active can help.

Simple things like expressing concerning about child’s weight and taking tiny steps to normalize it can make a huge difference. Consult a clinician if the psychological problems are deep rooted.

5.Find out if your child’s health condition is not responsible for his weight

If you have read our article 7 Alarming Causes behind Childhood Obesity, you might have come across various medical conditions that could be responsible for childhood obesity.

A few genetic conditions like Prader Willi syndrome, Barder Biedlt syndrome affect children in which obesity is a symptom. Metabolic and hormonal disorders like Cushing’s syndrome and polycystic ovarian syndrome can lead to weight gain.

Consult a physician to rule out these causes and if diagnosed ask the doctor or a dietician for a weight management course along with proper treatment of the disease.

What does this mean?
Find out whether your child’s overweight condition is not a result of any medical condition. If diagnosed with any such disease, seek appropriate treatment and weight management technique for the same.

6.Eating out should be an occasional event

I don’t need to explain to you the link between increased weight and fast food. After all fast food is high in calories, unhealthy fats and sugars. Also the portion sizes are larger than what is generally recommended for an individual.

Fast food consumption is high in childhood and increases with adolescence and it is also associated with a high BMI.  But how can you battle your child’s urge for fast food?

A good start would be educating your child about nutrition. Taking an example of a superhero and asking ‘What this person would eat?’ unhealthy (French fries) or healthy (apple slices) is a good way to influence your kid’s food habits.

A study  was conducted wherein adolescents were asked to choose food items from a fast food restaurant menu and then were given a 30 minute nutrition education session. After that they were asked to reselect food items and a positive change in calories and fat content of the choice was observed.

Parent moderated behaviours can successfully shift the child’s preferences towards healthy food.   Make eating out an occasional event, educate your child about healthier fast food options or provide them with healthier versions of fast food at home.

What does this mean?
Educating your child about nutrition and the possible healthier options that he/she can opt for when eating out can aid in offsetting the effect of fast food consumption on weight.

As far as very young children are concerned make visits to fast food restaurants an occasion and give them healthier versions of fast food at home.

7.Start transitioning to a healthy lifestyle

Parents should provide access to healthful eating options. Early exposure and accessibility to nutritious food like fruits and vegetables promotes the children’s interest in such foods and they eat more of them.

Eating dinner together promotes children’s interests in healthy food choices such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and reduces preferences towards fats and soft drinks.  As kids grow older they tend to spend less time at home for meals which is why parents need to intervene and maintain family eating practices.

However there is one thing parents should keep in mind. Parents’ attempts to control what their child eats may shift the child’s attention from internal hunger and satiety cues towards appealing tastes of the food.

Imposing strict restrictions may shift the child’s preferences towards high fat, energy dense foods.

When you make a shift of being engaged in physical activity and exercise, your child will follow the same route. Other few habits that you might need to work on:

  • Regular bed time since lack of sleep is associated with increased with weight gain
  • Snacking but only on healthy options
  • No skipping meals or breakfast
  • No midnight snacking or late night TV viewing
  • Making family meals a joyful event so that kids follow the same practice when dining out

A slow gradual shift towards a healthy lifestyle is advisable so that kids are not overwhelmed by the number of changes.

What does this mean?
Simple changes in lifestyle such as regulating eating behaviours, sleeping habits, engaging in family meals can serve as preventive measures against childhood obesity.

8.You are your child’s hero, start behaving like one

Children mimic their parents’ behaviours with respect to a number of factors. Eating pattern is one. At an early age children will eat only what is provided in the household.

Children imitate their parent’s food choices and eating behaviours, especially their mother’s.  So if parents overeat their children may follow the same pattern.  Role modelling is a clinical proven measure against childhood obesity.

childhood obesity image 3A great start would be changing your own eating habits and food choices. Try new healthy foods yourself and introduce your child to it. Make shopping for food and preparing food a parent-child activity.  When your child says he is hungry, offer a healthy snack and do not use sugary food (eg: candies, cake) as a meal replacement.

Parents’ interest and understanding of importance of physical activity can influence a child’s behaviour.

The Framingham Children’s study  demonstrated that children of active mothers are twice as likely to be active than children of inactive mothers. If both parents were active then children were 5.8 times likely to be active than children of sedentary parents.

Reduce your own as well as your child’s screen time. Encourage and be involved in your child’s physical activity. Walking to school or using the bike are good initiatives to incorporate exercise in your child’s daily routine.

What does this mean?
Children mimic their parents. So if you incorporate healthy eating habits and value exercise, your child is likely to follow the same pattern.

Parent based childhood obesity prevention programs

Researchers have designed programs focussed on reducing childhood obesity by incorporating parent’s involvement.

Family based approach

In one parent based intervention  , families of 7-12 year old children were selected to receive only counselling or counselling and a behavioural therapy. Both groups observed decrease in use of TV and videogames.

The behavioural group mentioned significant increase in physical activity and playing outside. There was a decrease in overall household TV use and in meals eaten while watching TV in this group.

The 8 week HENRY (Healthy Exercise Nutrition for the Really Young) program  guided parents to take a step against childhood obesity. At the end of 8 weeks, parents reported increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, decreased consumption of sweetened foods and improved eating behaviour in children.

School & parent based approach

In a school based intervention , it was evaluated how a school based health report affects family’s awareness and concerns regarding child’s weight. Parents of overweight children receiving such reports were more aware of their child’s weight status and took up more activities to control it rather than parents who did not receive such reports.

Approach involving reduction of screen time

A study  called ‘Switch Play’ was designed to reduce TV time and increase physical activities. Results showed that more than 50% of the children reduced TV time and less than 50% increased physical activity. And most of the children enjoyed alternative activities.

Parents vs. Parent & Children program

This study  involved either parents alone or parents and the obese child as a medium of change in order to improve the child’s weight. The study lasted for a year.

The parents were asked to employ positive parenting styles. In the parents only approach, a significant reduction in BMI was observed at the end of 1 year. A positive change in food habits was also observed in this group.

Researchers concluded that keeping the child from actively participating in health program is beneficial but what I infer from here is how crucial is a parent’s involvement in this matter.

What does this mean?
These are a few random parent based childhood obesity prevention/treatment programs that I thought of sharing with you just to highlight the idea of how vital is a parent’s role in regulating a child’s eating habits and nutritional pattern, even through a scientific point of view.

Conclusion

As a parent you can significantly influence a child’s life, nutrition is just a part of it. I have presented few ways by which you, as a parent, can prevent or tackle childhood obesity.

It is necessary that you not only focus on your child’s weight but strive to improve his/her health.

Some of you might not be able to practice few of the above mentioned suggestions for example if you live in area where there is no safe access to a park, then it would be difficult to manage outdoor play or if you are a working single parent, preparing home cooked meals might be tough.

Still you can meditate upon these suggestions and see if you can personally bring about some changes to help your child.

You can also seek professional help but at the same time it’s important to pay attention to your child’s weight and motivate them personally. Together you and your child can carve out a healthy future.

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