Preventing Childhood Obesity

In 2014, one in every four (23.1%) of Canada’s youth were considered to be overweight or obese and in the U.S., the statistics are one in every three children.* These figures have significantly increased over the past two decades and childhood obesity is now considered a public health concern. Overweight children tend to become overweight or obese adults which can lead to the premature onset of a variety of illnesses. There is even a rise in childhood diabetes (type 2) that was not seen before. Excessive weight at any age is linked to many physical health concerns from insulin resistance, high blood pressure (hypertension), and other chronic diseases. A decrease in emotional and social well-being is also noted for many overweight individuals and this is also true in children from a lack of self-worth to social isolation. 

Causes of childhood obesity

There are a few factors that contribute to childhood obesity. The main components include: 

  • poor nutrition
  • lack of quality movement, and
  • using food as a reward. 

How to help prevent childhood obesity

Below are factors to consider which can help ensure your child receives the best chance at maintaining a healthy weight.

  • Watch what your infant and toddler are eating

Feeding your infant and toddler healthy, low sugar, non-processed foods during the first three years of life helps to provide a great opportunity to shape lifelong, healthy eating habits. It also teaches them what nutritious foods are supposed to taste like! It has been shown that when children are only given healthy foods in these first few years, they are better able to not overindulge in low nutrient/processed foods later in life.** 

  • Focus on healthy, nutrient dense foods

Everyone could use more vegetables in their diet! A good rule is to ensure your child has at minimum one leafy green, one colourful vegetable, and one above ground vegetable every day. Other considerations include good quality proteins throughout the day, but most importantly at breakfast time as studies show that those who skip breakfast tend to overindulge throughout the day. Examples of breakfast protein options include: eggs, Greek yogurt, protein smoothies, and oatmeal loaded with nuts and seeds. 

  • Identify and remove food sensitivities

Sometimes even seemingly healthy food options can cause inflammation which can also lead to extra weight gain. Food sensitivities are becoming more common and can also lead to other conditions such as eczema, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS). Talk to your naturopath about how to identify your child’s specific food sensitivities.

  • Avoid processed, high sugar foods and beverages  

I am pretty realistic with my patients and understand that on occasion unhealthy foods are going to be consumed. Suggested ways families can help reduce their intake of unhealthy food options are:

  1. Keep track of how often processed snacks/foods are consumed, as a family, to help keep unhealthy eating to a minimum
  2. Aim for no more then 1-3 times per month when possible, and
  3. Educate your child on what foods are “everyday” foods and which ones are occasional indulgences (3 or less per month). Foods to consider as occasional include: baked goods/pastries, candy, fast foods including pizza (sorry!), pop/soda including sports drinks and vitamin water.

This post has a number of other great tips for helping to reduce sugar intake.

  • Daily activity – 60 minutes or more each day

There are so many benefits to getting your children outside running around every day. The formula for maintaining a healthy weight is having energy output more or equal to energy input and we all know how much energy a child has on any given day! 

  • Reduce screen time to less than 1-2 hours per day

Children in the U.S. watch an average of four hours of TV per day.*** Watching TV or playing video games for extended periods like this not only encourages sedation but also can lead to an increase in unnecessary snacking. Reducing screen time will also limit your child’s exposure to well placed advertisements for high calorie, low nutrient foods and beverages. 

For other health reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises infants under two should avoid all types of television and over two should not be exposed more than two hours per day. Click this link to come up with a family plan around how much TV is being watched in your household.  

  • Avoid using food as a reward

Using food as a reward can send confusing signals to children about food especially as the rewards are generally ones high in sugar. Instead, create rewards around special events or activities spent with mom or dad like a special date just for them, extra stories at bedtime, educational games, etc. 

  • “Other ingredients” to watch out for

Although a children’s multivitamin or other supplement can be helpful to fill in the gaps when a diet is less than perfect, some of these are loaded with sugar and food dyes. Choose supplements that are low in these additives to help prevent unnecessary calories, these can also be hard on their growing teeth. Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider about which supplements are best suited for your child.

  • Support a healthy mindset about food and weight in your home

Always consult your healthcare practitioner if you are concerned with your child’s weight or growth rate. Caution must be used when assessing your child’s weight as to not induce self-esteem issues or body image issues. This can be a very tricky balance so try to not make a focus on the child’s weight, instead focus more on healthy eating and active play. 

Teaching your children how to lead a healthy lifestyle early on cannot only help to prevent childhood obesity but can assist them in becoming health-conscious adults and reduce their risk of chronic disease later in life. Start this school year out with a focus on a healthy lifestyle for the whole family. Consider healthy lunch options for your child to start them off right and to teach them the importance of healthy eating. This post provides tips healthy options for busy households. 

For tips to improve overall health and wellbeing, nutrition, recipes and meal plans, visit Integrative Health.

* Stats Canada 2014 [Accessed September 2015]. 
** R. Sear 2015 [Accessed September 2015].
*** Amy E. Thompson, MD. Childhood Obesity, The Journal of the American Medical Association: August 25, 2015 [Accessed September 2015].