Almost one in three adult Missourians is obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As one of the fattest states in the nation, it’s no surprise that obesity is becoming an increasing problem for our children, too.
“Children with obesity are at risk for the same diseases as adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” says Dr. Melissa Rickerson, a pediatrician with Mercy Clinic Pediatrics St. Charles and Mercy Children’s Hospital. These are almost always preventable conditions for children, and parents are the examples kids look to when learning about healthy lifestyle choices.
“Parents and educators are in a unique role to teach children about nutrition by role-modeling healthy eating habits themselves,” says Kathryn Helling, a registered dietitian with SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center. “Children will develop their eating habits based on what they are exposed to in their home and school environments. If they see their parents and teachers eating well, they will be motivated to do the same.”
Parents have the power to fill the pantry and refrigerator with healthy snacks and ingredients, making a healthy diet a ‘family project,’ points out Dr. Joel Koenig, chief of pediatrics at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. He notes that as children enter puberty, they often become more self-conscious about weight and begin to build more calorie-burning muscle due to hormonal changes. However, parents should not place so much emphasis on weight that an adolescent becomes obsessed to the point of developing an eating disorder.
Koenig advises parents to use choosemyplate.gov, an interactive website from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to access tips, recipes and games related to healthy eating for both adults and children. He also suggests keeping all food consumption to the kitchen in order to decrease mindless eating while watching television or playing video games.
And speaking of TV and video games, parents can limit these sedentary activities. “Physical exercise is key in children maintaining appropriate weights,” Rickerson says. “Gym class is usually not enough, especially since most kids only have gym a couple times a week. Kids need exercise just like adults.”
Packing a lunch also provides parents some degree of control. “A healthy school lunch includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods from different food groups, with sources of carbohydrate, protein and fat,” Helling says. “For example, healthy sources of carbohydrate may include fruit, low-fat or fat-free milk, or whole grains. Healthy sources of protein include nuts, beans, lean meats, and low fat or fat free dairy. Finally, sources of healthy fats include avocado, nuts, or natural peanut butter.” An example of a healthy school lunch may include a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread, an apple and carrot sticks.
“Maintain a positive attitude about living a healthy lifestyle,” Helling adds. “Good nutrition is important for the entire family. Remember that your children will follow your lead, so set the example you want them to follow.”