Today we are bombarded with evidence that Americans are overweight. Estimates of what percentage of the population could be considered overweight range from about one-third to one-half. Whatever is the correct percentage, we only have to walk down the street and note the other pedestrians to know that we have a problem. Or, in some cases, we can look in the mirror. With chagrin I confess that I am about five pounds overweight. We know that being overweight is a genuine health hazard, increasing significantly the likelihood of diabetes and heart attacks and other assaults on healthful living.
The problem is not limited to adults. According to data from the National Institutes of Health, roughly 20 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 can be classified as obese. With preschoolers that percentage is not much lower, with different samples suggesting that it’s somewhere between 10 and 15 percent. And, just as with adults, childhood obesity is not without its health hazards. Obese children have more episodes of sleep apnea (temporary inability to breathe during sleep), asthma, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Furthermore, young children who are obese tend to become obese adults and continue or increase their health risk.
We can easily pinpoint the two causes of this new epidemic:
(1) We eat too much.
(2) We don’t get enough exercise.
Right away I want to offer the disclaimer that I am not a nutritionist or a fitness specialist, so perhaps you think I shouldn’t write on this topic. However, how much and what we eat, and how much and what type of exercise we get, are deeply ingrained behavioral habits. And, in the domain of behavioral habits, I have my credentials!
Yes, most of us eat too much. Across the nutritional board the portions we serve ourselves and our children are much bigger than they need to be to provide calories for growth or maintenance. Furthermore, we tend to eat too much of the “wrong” food and too little of the “right” food. And we do that because the habits that lead to obesity were deeply ingrained in us when we were very young, and as adults we tend to keep eating the same way and the same foods we ate as children.
This means that parents have a major role to play in preventing obesity, as we are the ones who instill eating patterns in our children. So, when we look for the cause of our current obesity epidemic, parents have to take a lot of the responsibility. We cajole our children to eat more, and we tend to offer fat-forming foods with little nutritional value (candy, cake, fries, etc.) as rewards for behavior we are trying to encourage. How many of you have ever said, as I did many times, “Eat your vegetables and you can have some dessert?” That sets a child up for thinking that dessert is more intrinsically rewarding than vegetables, no matter what the young child’s taste buds might be saying, and no matter the nutritional value of the two types of food.
From the time they can walk, most young children move around a great deal. A few years ago it was shown that a professional football player ran out of energy and had to rest while trying to copy all of the movements a 2-year-old child made in a single day.
But we have found a way to slow down and even halt some of that movement. It’s called TV. Believe it or not, surveys have shown that preschool children watch TV 20 to 25 hours a week. In their defense, they at least get up and move around some while watching a program. Elementary school children watch even more than preschoolers (and don’t forget video games), usually flopped on the floor or a couch and remaining sedentary throughout the program—sometimes eating high-calorie snacks all the while. So that’s a lot of hours, and they’re not all in the evening, when you want them to slow down a bit, anyway. Add to the TV and video hours the fact that children are far more likely to take trips to school or a store in a bus or car rather than by foot and you have cut back calorie-burning exercise movements even more.
What Can We Do?
I have four simple suggestions that will help.
1) Set a good example. As always, this is the first thing a parent needs to do. If dad doesn’t eat vegetables, or mutters, “Ugh” when the broccoli is passed, we can’t expect his children to embrace it wholeheartedly. Don’t expect your children to choose celery and carrots for snacks if you gorge on chips and high-fat dips. And let your child see you exercising on home equipment or in a club. Many early childhood centers offer a gymnastic program as a curriculum extra. And, if your child’s elementary school doesn’t offer physical education every day, nag the administrators and school board until it does.
2) Don’t use fat-forming foods as rewards. If your preschooler picks up her toys, comment on how proud of her you are. Don’t say, “You’ve earned some M&M’s for that.” Try using the opportunity to exercise as a reward. “If you finish your homework within an hour, we’ll have time to (go for a swim, play in the park, walk the track).”
3) Make certain that, at most meals, you offer only nutritious choices and not high-calorie/low-nutrition foods. Nutritionists tell us that we should eat five servings of vegetables and fruits a day, so keep count and make sure you offer that many.
4) Have the family eat together at the table. Picking up fast food and eating it in front of the TV makes for double jeopardy.
A Compliment for Arkansas
I’m proud of some of the things being done in my state to help prevent obesity in all of us. Over the last year or so, Governor Mike Huckabee lost 100 pounds. In coping with his own obesity he began to pay attention to all the things we do that subtly encourage children to develop fat-generating habits. He noticed all the high-fat foods available in school vending machines (and the absence of nutritious snacks) and checked cafeteria menus. It seemed that children were constantly being enticed to develop eating habits that caused them to put on excess weight. He is now encouraging school districts to eliminate such foods from vending machines and menus. He has written a book with a very provocative title: “Quit Digging your Grave with a Knife and Fork.” His attention to this societal problem has encouraged governors of other states to launch similar campaigns that will hopefully benefit children all over the country.
And finally, I have to mention a most commendable project recently carried out by medical students at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. With a small grant from the American Medical Association and the Arkansas Medical Society, they sponsored an essay contest for fourth- and fifth-grade students called “Get Healthy Now, Even Kids.” They received and judged 283 essays on the topic, “Why Fitness Matters.”
The winner was fifth-grader Allegra Green, who said among other things in her essay:
“Kids, get off the couch and turn off the video games and TV and join me outside for play and fun!
You should ’live healthy’ because there are many illnesses in the world that are associated with unhealthy eating.”
Way to go, Allegra! You get my vote too.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.