September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and although it may seem bizarre to start having conversations and working with our young children on healthy eating habits and exercise before they can even read, it is needed.
Like other basic skills parents work hard to teach their children, parents need to pass down lessons on what it means to be healthy — even if children don’t necessarily need to worry about it yet.
Children are a sponge, and it is far easier for them to learn and understand things at a young age than try to figure it out when they are older. Maybe you are an adult that didn’t have a healthy atmosphere in your home growing up, and as age crept up and your metabolism slowed down you had to start exercising for the first time, or eating differently. Those changes are very hard to make as an adult whose lifestyle habits are already ingrained. Be diligent when your kids are young and the benefit can be huge.
Nearly one in five school-age children in the U.S. are considered obese. And although Oregon’s adult and child obesity rates are relatively low compared to other states — according to The State of Obesity, an annual report put out by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health — there is still room for improvement.
Children with obesity are at risk for health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases that hard to tackle.
“The new treatment paradigm for metabolic disease is to treat the obesity first, especially in children,” said Caroline Apovian, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, in an article for The Obesity Society. “Treating obesity first in children gives us a better chance of preventing these comorbidities rather than waiting until adulthood when perhaps, irreversible damage to organs has occurred.”
In Oregon, regulations have been put into place for Early Children Education programs such as making more drinking water available, implementing healthy eating policies, providing meals and snacks that meet dietary guidelines and providing time for physical activity. Schools also have requirements to enforce physical education.
And while these policies greatly help in leading our children toward healthy living, the greatest influence for our children comes from the examples we set in our homes.
“Successfully lowering obesity rates in children requires the whole family to change their eating and physical activity habits,” said Steven Stanfield, Healthy Living director at the YMCA of Douglas County. “Kids learn unhealthy habits at home, and many parents or caregivers don’t realize how the choices they make affect those who look up to them.”
Eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder are also large contributors to depression and suicide. In addition to Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, September is also Suicide Prevention Month.
It isn’t just unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyle that leads to our children adapting poor health habits. It can also be our own low self-esteem, comments about our weight or how we look, remarks about the physical appearance of others — and yes, negative remarks to our own children about their physical appearance.
I’ve heard parents call their children “fat” and I’ve heard (and participated in) self-shaming as well. Your children hear you when you put down how you look. They are also surrounded by other children and peers who may have a skewed view of a healthy lifestyle. Remember that those comments, whether directed at your kids or not, impact their mental state and understanding of healthy living. Have multiple conversations with your children to see what they understand, what they hear at school, what they have questions about.
Be the example and teach your children through it. The less you do for them, and the more you show them, the more they will learn. Here are a few ideas:
- Grocery shop together and have kids pick out their favorite healthy choices. Teach them about looking at the nutritional label.
- Cook healthy dinners together and eat at home as often as you can. Fast food isn’t evil, but shouldn’t be a regular routine.
- Help your children pack their lunch and get foods from each food group. They will quickly get used to not only knowing what a protein, starch, fruit and vegetable is, but also figure out how to put together a balanced meal.
- Find physical activities you can do and enjoy as a family.