When I was a child, meals were not just about nutrition; they were moments where my mother could shower me with love… by stuffing me with food. Much of this love came from my mom’s own childhood, when her belly constantly ached for more food. As an adult, I can appreciate her desire to block that hunger from my life, but my mother’s actions played a big part in my lifelong struggle towards achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
Today, public health experts consider childhood obesity in America a crisis. Almost 1 in 3 American children and adolescents are either overweight or have obesity, which can lead to asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and bone and joint problems. Obese children are also more likely to experience bullying, social isolation, depression, and lower self-esteem.
Overweight adolescents also have a 70% chance of growing into overweight or obese adults. A child with obesity between the ages of 6- to 8-years old is about 10 times more likely to grow into an obese adult. But if you can help your child avoid obesity by the age of five, she has a much better chance of avoiding obesity as an adult. While genetics certainly plays a role in weight, there are plenty of things you can do to help your child maintain a healthy weight.
The easiest way to ensure that your child eats right is to serve nutritious options and let her decide how much to eat. Don’t worry if she doesn’t eat as much as yesterday, because children’s appetites vary daily. By letting your child lead the meal, you’re teaching her how to listen to her body’s natural signals of fullness and hunger, and allowing her to learn how much is enough.
Giving control to your child also means that you should prepare yourself for leftover food on the plate. Clean plates are not the goal. And for picky eaters, it also means that you shouldn’t force your child to eat—as long as she is growing and has energy to play, she is likely getting enough food.
A healthy diet includes the right portions of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Portion size for toddlers and preschoolers are much smaller—every meal may not include every food group. By varying the options during meals and snacks, your child will get a balanced diet over the course of the day. Avoid offering juices, sodas, and chocolate milk, which contain a lot of sugar.
Children also need appropriate sleep and physical activity to maintain a healthy weight. To see if your child is getting enough sleep, check the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations for sleep at every stage of childhood. If your child is in school, help them to get at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise every day.
Childhood obesity starts at an early age. By teaching your child healthy eating and lifestyle habits, you can help her avoid a lifelong battle with weight and possible chronic diseases.