Obesity in children today causes more health problems than drug abuse or smoking. One in three U.S. children and adolescents are overweight. This alarming statistic equates to a dramatic rise in health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, respiration illness, orthopedic problems and high cholesterol. Overweight children suffer social effects as well; frequent teasing can lead to a negative body image, low self-esteem and depression. The American Heart Association predicts that the habits of overweight children will lead to a shorter life expectancy than that of their parents.
Diabetes, the most common illness related to obesity, is a condition that must be carefully managed, and the associated costs are high. The American Diabetes Association reports that 10% of U.S. health care expenditures are related to diabetes; these patients commonly have medical expenses that are 2.4 times more than those without this illness. Heart disease, the most common diabetes complication, costs billions of dollars per year to families, insurers and taxpayers. For the 43% of patients who fail to properly manage their disease, it is estimated that $11,000 per year is required to maintain their health. Even with proper management of insulin dosages, monthly costs for insured patients can run as high as $120 a month.
Ensuring nutritional health for your family requires foremost that you are a good role model for healthy eating. Setting this example teaches your children that it is normal activity to choose foods lower in sodium, refined sugars and fats. Purchase whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible and opt for whole-grain breads over those containing refined flours. Junk foods like chips, candy and sugary cereals should be removed from your home and replaced with cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables. Cooking at home generally means that meals are healthier than eating out, and study after study has shown that eating together as a family promotes psychological well-being. Keep mealtimes consistent, offer several healthy options and allow your child to decide when he or she is full.
Other tips for ensuring that your child has a healthy diet include:
- Freeze individual boxes of low fat milk or soymilk and place in packed lunches for school
- Serve whole-grain or hot cereals with low fat milk or soymilk
- Consider fun foods like string cheese or low fat frozen yogurt for dairy consumption
- Add a handful of high-fiber cereal to your child’s regular breakfast cereal
- Offer a fruit or vegetable with every meal
- Add low fat margarine, parmesan cheese or a light dressing to vegetables for flavor
- Dice vegetables very finely for use in sauces, meatloaf or pasta dishes
- Make popsicles with pureed fruit and yogurt
- Freeze berries, grapes and melon balls to add to cereal or yogurt
- Introduce fish, twice per week if possible; many chicken recipes are easily adapted to use milder fish like tilapia or cod
- Shop with sustainability in mind, and choose albacore tuna and wild-caught salmon over farmed or overfished species
- Limit red meats and offer healthier chicken or turkey instead
- Serve appropriate portion sizes
- Avoid commercial peanut butters loaded with sugar and fat, and opt for healthier choices like almond butter or organic peanut butter
There are some staples that are a part of a typical American childhood. While these can be provided in a healthy manner, there are some common misconceptions about them. The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for instance, is a lunch box favorite. Remember that white bread has very little nutritional value, commercial peanut butter is loaded with excess sugar and hydrogenated fats, and most jellies have unnecessary sugars added. Choose whole-grain bread, organic peanut butter and sugar-free jellies or jams for this childhood treat.
Many parents also believe that whole milk is the best nutritional option for children. While infants and toddlers do need extra fat for proper neural development, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids older than 2 drink only 1% or skim milk. Snacks like applesauce and granola bars may seem healthy at first glance, but read labels carefully. Two popular brands of commercial applesauce, for example, contain refined flour, hydrogenated fat, high fructose corn syrup and numerous chemicals used for preservatives. A healthier option lists apples as the first ingredient on its food label and has no added sugars.
Learning to properly decipher food labels is an important part of making healthy food choices. Ingredients are listed in a most-to-least order, so the first few ingredients on the list are what make up the bulk of the product. Cereal manufacturers, for example, are allowed to label a product “whole grain” with only a tiny amount of actual whole grain in the cereal; check labels carefully to ensure that whole-grain flour is among the first 3 ingredients listed. Sugars are another culprit that may be hiding behind names like high-fructose corn syrup or white grape juice concentrate; multiple items like this indicate that a product is packed with sugar. Tricky marketers similarly take advantage of lax labeling guidelines with the content of fruit, fiber and fats, so it behooves parents to pay close attention to food labels