As a parent, you want your children to be healthy and happy, free from danger. You want to protect them from environmental hazards, unsafe situations, and people who may wish them harm. But did you know diet can be the biggest danger your child will ever face, that it can cause childhood obesity that can take a physical, emotional, and psychological toll on your child?
It’s true, and many parents are experiencing these issues with their children. Obesity has not only reached epidemic proportions globally for adults, it has also hit our children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 5 school age children ages 6 to 19 is obese. Surveys show childhood obesity to be the top health concern among parents, replacing that of smoking and drug use.
And for good reason.
The health effects of overweight and obesity are so serious that former Surgeon General of the United States Richard Carmona stated that today’s children may be the first generation that may have a shorter life expectancy than that of their parents.
What is Childhood Obesity?
Obesity is defined as having an excess amount of body fat sufficient to negatively affect health. Though being overweight can cause health problems, obesity significantly increases these risks. Doctors determine obesity using body mass index (BMI) calculations, which is a measure of weight divided by height. Researchers discovered these calculations roughly equal levels of body fat, though it is not an exact science.
The BMI calculations for children, however, are different from those used for adults. The ones doctors use for children take into account their ages and different growth rates, depending upon their ages and sex.
The numbers of obese children have more than tripled from 1971 to 2011, and there are many reasons for that.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
Studies show genetics has a big influence on obesity. For instance, a few studies show a BMI of 25 to 40% — considered overweight to obese — is genetic. In other words, if overweight or obesity runs in your family, you might be more likely to have a weight problem. However, studies show genetics to be responsible for less than 5% of incidences of childhood obesity.
To discover the reasons for childhood obesity, many researchers have studied the possible effects of diet on children. Here are some of their findings.
Fast Food Consumption
The number of fast food restaurants has more than doubled since the 1970s. Fast food restaurants are a convenient and quick way to grab a bite to eat, and they are also great time savers for families with two working parents or single parent households. Food served at fast food restaurants often contain high numbers of calories with high amounts of fat, sugars, and starchy carbs. These foods contain little nutritional value.
A study published in the January 2004 issue of Pediatrics linked fast food consumption to childhood obesity. When researchers analyzed 6,212 children’s responses to questions in government surveys from 1994 to 1998, they estimate almost one-third of U.S. children age 4 to 19 consume fast food every day.
Researchers also estimated that because fast-food eaters consumed 187 more daily calories than those who do not routinely eat fast foods, they likely gain 6 pounds per year, weight gain that can lead to childhood obesity.
Sugary Beverage Consumption
Many studies show sugary beverages to be a contributing factor to childhood obesity. Children drink sugary beverages quickly, and because they are not filling, children often drink more than one, or they eat more food calories.
According to one study, the odds of a child becoming obese increased 60% with each additional 12-ounce soda he or she drank each day. A 12-ounce can of soda contains between 39 and 41 grams of sugar, around 10 teaspoons. Drinking sugar causes an immediate spike in blood glucose levels, making the pancreas produce tons of insulin to handle this rush. Excess insulin is immediately stored as fat.
And soda isn’t the only sugar beverages parents should worry about. So-called “healthy” juices, sports drinks, and even milk are loaded with sugar that undoubtedly contributes to childhood obesity.
Increased Portion Sizes
Studies show portion sizes of foods offered at fast food restaurants and chain restaurants have increased significantly in the past couple of decades.
Few studies show a direct link between portion sizes and childhood obesity. However, the World Health Organization’s website states that the super-sized portions of so many fast-food restaurants may condition children and their parents into believing these portion sizes are normal, thereby leading to large portion sizes of home-cooked meals.
Studies show children are not as active as they once were. In fact, childhood inactivity has become almost as big of an issue as that of childhood obesity. There are many reasons why children live more sedentary lifestyles these days.
Children spend more time watching television, using the computer, playing video games. Many children also have smartphones in which they are always absorbed. There are also environmental factors. Many children live in neighborhoods that don’t provide safe areas for physical activities, such as public parks, playgrounds, etc.
One study showed each hour of watching television increased risk of obesity by 2%. This effect may be caused not just by the lack of activity, but also by the children’s tendency to eat the unhealthy foods constantly advertised on these programs.
Socio-cultural factors also exert a powerful influence over childhood obesity. For instance, societal norms dictate how food is to be used in public. In the U.S., food is often used for reward and as a part of socialization. In addition, the standard American diet of heavily processed foods, starchy carbs, and sugars is a recipe for obesity.
When children are raised with these social norms and diets, they can easily develop an unhealthy attitude toward food. Childhood obesity is then right around the corner.
Similar to social-cultural issues, the family plays a huge role in a child’s relationship with food. After all, children adopt the type of diet and physical activities the family prefers. If the family as a whole does not get much physical activity, neither do the children.
Studies also show that having an overweight parent contributes to childhood obesity.
Some drugs, such as antidepressants and oral steroids, are known to cause weight gain. Medication, however, is not usually the sole factor in obesity.
We can never underestimate psychological factors in weight gain. Like adults, many children use food to deal with emotional upset. This may take the form of overeating all foods, or just eating certain types of foods — such as chocolate — to ease the emotional pain and stress.
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Health and Psychological/Psychosocial Effects of Childhood Obesity
Children who are obese are more likely to have:
High blood pressure/high cholesterol, increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease.
Children who are obese are also often the victims of bullying and also likely to suffer discrimination because of their weight.
Obese children are also more likely to become obese adults, which is associated with increased risk of many serious diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
What if Your Child is Skinny?
If your child doesn’t have any weight issues, that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean your child is healthy. If your child routinely eats a poor-quality diet of refined sugars, starchy carbs, and processed foods, trouble could be brewing right beneath the skin.
Your child could be “skinny fat,” a condition in which your child has too much body fat and not enough muscle. The child’s weight and BMI is normal according to the age and height chart, however.
How can this happen?
There are two types of fat, subcutaneous and visceral.
Subcutaneous fat is stored beneath the skin. This is the fat you can see and grab with your fingers. Though subcutaneous fat is not healthy, it is not as unhealthy as the second kind of fat we’re going to discuss.
Visceral fat is stored deep in the abdominal cavity, around the organs. It even wraps around the kidneys, stomach, liver, and intestines. This is dangerous because fat is metabolically active, pumping out hormones and inflammatory substances right into these major organs. That’s why having subcutaneous fat increases the risk for many diseases, including type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, and cognitive problems.
An obese child may have both subcutaneous and visceral fat, but a thin child may have just visceral fat. Both children are at equal risk of the many obesity-related diseases.
Preventing Childhood Obesity in Your Home
Though many factors undoubtedly play a role in childhood obesity, the main cause is that the metabolic system has been broken.
You see, the body is designed to regulate the calorie intake and output around the setpoint weight. The brain, digestive system, and hormones continually communicate with each other to coordinate the activities that will keep body fat at a specified level, ie, setpoint weight. If this system is broken, the body doesn’t know how much fat your child needs, and it will just give you more fat.
You can’t fix this problem by putting your child on a calorie-restricted diet. Your child’s body will fight the weight loss because it thinks your child needs to weight more. The only way you can fix this problem is to lower the setpoint weight.
You can do this by feeding your child:
10+ servings of non-starchy veggies per day.
3-5 servings of nutrient-dense protein
3-6 servings of whole-food fats
0-3 servings of low-fructose fruits
Try to make sure your child eats the first three — non-starchy veggies, nutrient-dense proteins, whole-food fats — together at every meal. These foods will fill your child up fast and keep him or her full for a long time. They also heal the hormones, which lower setpoint weight.
You should also reduce consumption of refined sugars, processed foods, fast foods, and starchy carbs. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to keep your child away from these foods. Your child will be so full of SANE foods, there will be no room for inSANE ones.
How to Encourage SANE Eating Habits
Prepare homemade meals: Prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the family that includes non-starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense proteins, and whole food fats.
Remove inSANE temptations: Dispose of inSANE foods such as sugary treats, potato chips, etc. Replace them with SANE choices, such as low-fructose fruits, celery sticks, SANE Peanut Butter Energy Bites, etc.
Provide SANE substitutions: It’s not difficult to convince your children to eat a healthy diet. All you have to do is provide delicious, SANE foods to replace the inSANE ones. For instance, to replace sugary sodas and juices, make your children yummy green smoothies. Or, put a strawberry or a wedge of orange in a blender, add carbonated water, and blend. It tastes just like soda, but it is much healthier! You can even make it super-fun for your children by letting them help you make these SANE beverages!
Make it fun: On game night, replace candy, chips, and other inSANE snacks with a veggie tray and a choice of low-fructose fruits.
Emphasize water: Encourage your children to drink lots of water. Water flushes toxins from the system and also speeds up fat burning.
Try new vegetables: Have your children pick a new non-starchy vegetable for the family to try every week. Each vegetable has a different nutrition profile, so it is a good idea to eat a variety of vegetables. This is also a good way to introduce new herbs and spices to see which ones go better with which veggies.
Progress, Not Perfection
There is no such thing as perfection, so don’t expect it from your child. Every step in the right direction is progress, improvement. If your child makes a mistake, it is also not the end of the world. Tomorrow is another beginning, another day to be SANE.
Next Step: End Childhood Obesity with SANE
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