Childhood obesity often leads to obesity in adulthood and is linked to dozens of serious medical conditions. According to the CDC, approximately 13.7 million children and adolescents (between age 2 and 19 years old) are obese – roughly 18.5 percent of the population.
While these statistics are staggering, many parents struggle with what to do when they are told their child is obese.
"I see nearly five to seven new pediatric patients a day who are obese and at risk for major health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes," said Dr. Brunilda Cordero, pediatric endocrinologist with Cape Fear Valley Health System who cares for children with diabetes. "When children and their parents come to me with a diagnosis of obesity, we talk a lot about eating habits, healthy lifestyles for the entire family, as well as the dangers of ignoring the long-term risks that come with being obese as a child."
Healthy Eating for the Whole Family
Cordero said getting on the path to good health has to start at home. She shared her advice for families when it comes to healthy eating:
- Eliminate sugary drinks. This includes soda, juice, energy and hydration drinks such as Gatorade, sweet tea, or any other high-calorie beverage. "These drinks have no nutritional value and are basically just empty calories," Cordero explained. "I've seen patients lose up to 25 pounds in under a year just by eliminating these drinks."
- Pack your child's lunch every day. "Packing lunch allows you to better control what your children are eating, as well as how much food they get," Cordero said. "Most parents have no idea what their children get in a school lunch, and it's usually not the healthiest option. The school system does the best they can, but I believe parents can do better by packing their own lunches."
- Eat at home. Eating out is a gamble because you don't know how the food is being prepared, what ingredients are being used and you also can't control the portions. "When you cook at home, you can make small changes such as substituting brown rice for white rice, bake food instead of frying, and so on. These small things can really add up to improving your family's diet and overall health," Cordero continued.
- Practice portion control. "I try to educate my patients and their families about what makes a healthy meal," Cordero said. According to the latest USDA dietary guidelines, half your plate for each meal should be filled with vegetables and fruit. One fourth should include protein (preferably lean protein) and the other fourth should be filled with whole grains. "Using the 'MyPlate' graphic from the USDA is often helpful for families struggling with mealtime. Families will see amazing results if they can stick to these guidelines."
- Work together as a family. "All of these changes have to start at home, and families who work at this together are more successful," Cordero explained. "I remind parents that their kids are less likely to eat junk food if it's not in the house. Also, if kids see their parents making healthy choices, they are more likely to model that behavior."
More Movement, Less Screen Time
Addressing obesity isn't just about diet. Exercise is a key element that can't be overlooked.
"Implementing a plan for daily exercise is the first step – and an hour of activity is ideal," Cordero said. "Limit screen time or video games to no more than an hour a day and only after the child has gotten their hour of physical activity."
While none of these changes are easy to make, ignoring childhood obesity is not the answer.
"Children who are obese are more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, all of which can cause damage to the blood vessels leading to the heart. If a child's heart has to work harder at age 12, imagine what that same heart will look like at age 40," Cordero urged. "When it comes to childhood obesity, early intervention is your best bet."
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