What is Childhood Obesity?

Obese, It’s a word we hear more and more often. Growing up, only one of my classmates would have qualified as overweight. Today, nearly a third of US children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese. https://journals.lww.com/jpgn/fulltext/2010/12003/obesity_and_insulin_resistance_in_children.17.aspx

Childhood Obesity. It has an ugly sound, and no one likes to think that their child fits that label.

Let’s look at what this means. Then, even more importantly, we’ll look at what YOU can do, for your child, and for your entire family. The realization that your child is overweight can be a starting point for a better and healthier life for everyone.

What is childhood obesity and what can we do about it?

Obesity is defined as a high body mass index. That is a measurement that is calculated based on height and weight. While not perfect, body mass index (BMI) does give a rough indication of whether a person is in a healthy weight range. When the body mass index is over 30, a person is considered obese. Click on this link https://nhlbi.nih.gove/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm for the official BMI calculator.

There are a few issues with the BMI calculator; the biggest one being that there is no consideration of level of physical fitness. Since muscle weighs more than the same mass of fat, a sturdily built, muscular person can have a higher BMI than a person of the same size who has little muscle. However, these issues with the BMI calculation apply largely for adults instead of children since few children are lifting weights or seriously working out. If a child’s weight and body composition is such that their BMI is over 30, that means they are carrying more fatty tissue than they need.

Why Does Being Overweight Matter?

Aside from what it looks like, or the risk of being teased, or difficulty with running, or shame, being overweight carries health risks as well.

Children with a BMI over 30 are more likely to develop insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, joint pain, and arthritis. These health issues used to be diseases of old age, or at least middle age. Type 2 diabetes, for example, used to be called “adult onset diabetes”.

What changed? Why are children today getting diseases that they shouldn’t have to face until old age?

Why is this happening?

The single biggest cause of overweight children is the Standard American Diet, which is high in saturated and trans fat and carbohydrates and low in fiber. Social, genetic, and environmental factors also play a role, as it becomes less safe and less acceptable for children to play outside and children spend many hours a day sitting down and engaging with electronic devices for learning or play.

What can we do?

Overweight, unhealthy children are a problem. (Not the children, but the overweight and unhealthy part.)

The good news is, YOU can make a difference. Obesity is considered a lifestyle disease, meaning that it is caused by the way we live. That means you don’t need a doctor’s prescription, a fancy program, or some expensive equipment to change what is happening for your child and their future. You hold the power to make a difference, simply by choosing to live well.

There are three main areas that make the biggest difference in losing weight, reversing insulin resistance, avoiding heart disease, and living well. These are nutrition, activity, and sleep. Let’s look at these one at a time.

Nutrition

If the Standard American Diet is the single biggest contributor to the obesity epidemic, that means good nutrition is your best tactic in fighting against obesity.

You will find an overwhelming variety of diet plans online, in the bookstore, and in the advice your friends dish out. Some of these are good, some are okay, and some are the opposite of healthy. But even the healthy ones can be hard to do and harder to stick to. You don’t need a diet plan; you need a sustainable lifestyle.

Instead of focusing on what foods to eat or not eat, focus on eating real food. That means single ingredient foods wherever possible, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and foods with five or fewer ingredients on the label. For example, a baked potato with a small amount of real butter and sea salt, steamed green beans, and baked fish.

Make simple changes. You are not aiming for perfect, just for better. Swap in a yogurt with fresh fruit and swap out the toaster pastries. Pack a lunch. Grab an apple. Find fun ways to eat veggies. Say no to anything that has sugar or high fructose corn syrup among the first four ingredients. Drink fruit-infused water instead of coke. Serve watermelon instead of cake. Practice drinking plenty of water. Have a salad with dinner every night. Don’t guilt about fun foods—have fewer and then enjoy them! Pay attention to what makes you feel best and most alert and have more of that.

Activity

If nutrition is the best defense against obesity, vigorous activity is your best offense. Exercise builds muscle mass, and muscle mass increases metabolic rate, lowers insulin resistance, decreases blood pressure, and improves weight loss. That’s a win, but it doesn’t stop there. Exercise also improves mood and is connected to better sleep, and both of those are important for weight loss and for general quality of life.

Adults can do well with going to a gym and that is certainly also a good option for kids. Playtime, however, is the best form of exercise, for children and probably for adults too.

Here are some fun ways to make physical activity part of your everyday life.

  • Wash the windows together. Even if you live in a small apartment, this can be a fun family activity.
  • Encourage splashing in the tub
  • Dance in the living room
  • Explore worship dance, Praise Moves™ or martial arts
  • Go for a walk in the park. Don’t forget to spend some time on the swings while you’re there!
  • Create a treasure hunt that includes lots of walking and climbing
  • Have stair races, seeing who can get to the top first. This works best in a wider stairwell and can be especially fun in a multi-story building.
  • Go for a nature walk. Take a camera and document the small wonders of nature.
  • Find a swimming pool!
  • Join a dance class
  • Play softball with a local league
  • Volunteer at Vacation Bible School or a summer camp
  • Bust out the hula hoops
  • Choose video games that make you move your entire body
  • Climb trees
  • Skip rocks at a nearby pond, lake, or creek
  • Go horseback riding
  • Walk the dog
  • Practice walking on your hands (but don’t do this while walking the dog!)
  • Play soccer
  • Do geocaching

Most of all, have fun and be creative. For children, physical activity should not be a chore, it should be normal, and it should be fun.

Sleep

Not getting enough sleep can contribute to obesity. We often overlook or neglect sleep when thinking about ways to get to and stay at a healthy weight. But sleep is key. Sleepiness can be mistaken for hunger, so that we eat when we aren’t hungry. We know that something is wrong, so we try food.

Lack of sleep also causes stress hormones like cortisol to increase. High stress hormone levels trigger your body to hang onto energy, including fat. This makes it more likely that you will gain weight and harder to lose weight, even if you are eating well and getting plenty of exercise. There is some evidence that this may be even more so for teens, whose hormones are surging anyway.

Since sleep is so important, how can we get more of it?

Practice good sleep hygiene. This means going to bed and waking up at pretty much the same time every day.

Practice putting screens away at least an hour before going to bed. Don’t sleep with your phone. The EMF (electromagnetic frequency) emissions and the blue light disrupts normal function of the complex inner brain system that regulates sleep, so give your brain time to reset before going to bed. In fact, having phones charge overnight in a room other than the bedroom is a great idea, since this also cuts down on late night phone or text conversations. If you need music or white noise to sleep, use a radio or CD player instead of a television.

Develop a bedtime routine. This can include brushing teeth and changing into nightwear, but it should also include a relationship activity, like reading a bedtime story, or praying, or snuggle time on the sofa or listening to music together.

Some kids may need supplements like melatonin to help them sleep, but try the non-medication options first.

Live life joyfully and laugh more

As you lean into good nutrition, vigorous activity, and plenty of sleep, remember to have fun and live life joyfully! Laughter resets your brain, boosts mood, releases hormones that make you feel good, and improves your immune function. https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/why-your-brain-loves-to-laugh/ Have fun. Live well.


Janelle M. Zimmerman Bio