Healthy Lifestyles for Kids

By Marina Ramirez, M.D.
Many children today are moving too little or eating too much. The result: The number of overweight children has doubled in the past 30 years.
There are serious health consequences. People in their 20s and 30s will likely develop the diseases we associate with middle and old age. Already there are children with insulin insensitity, which puts them at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. There are also more children with cholesterol and blood pressure problems – conditions that could easily lead to early heart disease.

At What Age Is Weight an Issue?

Excess weight is usually not a concern in babies and very young children. However, after age 2 years, the likelihood that a weight problem will persist into adulthood increases with each year that passes.

A child whose weight is not brought under control by age 6, has a 50 percent chance of becoming an obese adult. That’s why it is important to catch weight problems when children are young.

What Is Causing the Super Sizing of America?

What makes the new epidemic among children difficult to combat is that today’s busy lifestyles encourage unhealthy behaviors.

Our families have changed. Parents are working longer hours. They care very much about their children’s health, but the time to do the things that promote health, such as eating together as a family at the table with the television set off, isn’t feasible for many families.

Schools have changed, too, sometimes replacing recess with sedentary activities and making high-fat foods readily available from vending machines and in school cafeterias.

Fast-food chains may be offering some “healthier” food choices, but our kids still prefer french fries and ketchup. And while all of us are rushing from place to place, too few of us take time for daily exercise.

Is Your Child Overweight?

One guideline that doctors use to assess weight problems in children 2 years old and older is the body mass index (BMI). BMI is used somewhat differently in children than in adults.

Because children’s bodies change as they develop, their age and gender need to be taken into account. Pediatricians use age and gender specific charts to follow a child’s BMI as he or she grows. Girls and boys have separate charts, because boys often carry more muscle than fat as they age.

If a child’s BMI is above the 85th percentile for their age, he or she is considered overweight.

What Can Parents Do?

The biological causes of overweight children are essentially the same as they are for adults.

People – children or adults – gain weight when they take in too many calories and burn off too few. The “cure” is simple, but never easy – eat less and exercise more.

Some suggestions to get children on the path to a healthy weight:

  • Begin teaching healthy eating habits early. If you allow a toddler to fill up on sweets and french fries, you are establishing a pattern that will be very hard to change. Expose your youngsters early to fruits and vegetables and encourage them to try them, over and over again.
  • Follow the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children should spend no more than one to two hours a day watching television or playing computer or video games.
  • Engage in family activities like walking, riding bicycles and playing sports. Children should average 60 minutes of hard play or moderate activity five days a week. Incorporating that activity into family time is a fun way to help compensate for reduced activity levels while they are in school.
  • Eat together as a family. Sit at the table, with the television off. Encourage children to drink water instead of fruit drinks and sodas. Make sure your children get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Don’t use food as a punishment or a reward. Giving Johnny candy when he’s good and telling him to go to his room without supper when he misbehaves sends the wrong message. You’ll want your children to recognize nutrition as essential to their health, not as a reward or punishment.
  • Keep healthy snacks on hand. Stock your refrigerator with veggies and fat-free or low-fat yogurt
  • Living a healthy lifestyle yourself also sets a good example for your children.

Marina L. Ramirez, M.D. joined Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in 1998. She is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and cares for her patients at the Main Campus Clinic.