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By Michelle Maxwell, MS, RD
Poor nutrition among our children has become such an epidemic that we have two months to address it. August is Kid’s Eat Right Month followed by Childhood Obesity Awareness Month in September. Food is a touchy subject for most people, and it remains a difficult topic when talking to parents about what children should and should not be fed. However, avoiding the conversation does not help to solve the problem.
There seems to be this misconception that poor eating habits as a child do not create long term effects and that issues that develop over time can just be corrected once the child is older. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and here is why. The problem is that an obese four year old increases their risk for obesity by 20%, while an obese teenager can have an increased risk of obesity up to 80%. Childhood obesity disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic children, and if we look at the statistics for obese adults, the same groups top the charts, especially among our women. Why should we care?
Obesity increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, osteoarthritis, and type 2 diabetes. Outside of physical health concerns, we also have to be concerned about the social and psychological problems that increase with childhood obesity. We should also care because this epidemic is a public health concern that displays health disparities. Those who are affected the most by childhood obesity are minorities and those living in poverty.
We as adults are responsible for shaping the eating habits of our children, children should not be dictating what they will and will not eat, especially when it comes to the essential building blocks like fruits and vegetables. For this reason specifically, I would like to speak to the parents, grandparents–especially grandparents– and other caretakers for a moment. Everything that is marketed to children is not necessarily the best option for them, and in most situations it is actually very bad for them. The candy, cereals, sugary beverages and all other snacks that are placed at eye level in the store can be full of sugars and other ingredients that are hard to pronounce.
It’s key that we teach our children to simply love fruits, vegetables and whole foods, and as parents, we must remember that the foods we give to our children do not need to be wrapped in any fancy packaging.
As parents have become more aware of this, marketers have realized that there is a whole new group to exploit, and now we find overpriced “organic” and “all-natural” foods geared towards kids with new cartoon characters. These foods may be better options, but unfortunately, if they cost more than their unhealthy counterpart, more than likely, they are not as easily accessible to the population that needs it the most. Also, many neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores or simple access to healthy foods, leaving parents with the cheaper, less healthy options for their children.
It’s key that we teach our children to simply love fruits, vegetables and whole foods, and as parents, we must remember that the foods we give to our children do not need to be wrapped in any fancy packaging. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive either. Utilize coupons, visit the farmer’s markets, shop for produce while they’re in season, choose frozen produce, buy specific items in bulk– all of these are ways to help cut the cost for healthy groceries. Also, become informed of other resources available to you such as WIC and the SNAP program. The investment you put into the food you feed your child will help to reduce the cost that you may have to spend on healthcare. Try allowing your child to be involved in the shopping process. Let them help you pick out fruits and vegetables, and if they are old enough, have them help with the food prep. The more involved a child is, the more invested they will become in his/her diet and health.
Another player in all of this is, of course, physical activity. I have a lot of parents tell me they are just feeding their children the same things that they ate as a child. What me must remember, however, is that our children are not as active as we once were. Technology has replaced playgrounds, with more and children opting to play a video game rather than becoming involved in outdoor activities. In some schools, physical education has even been replaced with test prep, and in some neighborhoods the concern for safety has left parents afraid to leave their children outside. To the best of our abilities, we must encourage children to get at least 60 minutes of activity everyday. If access to parks and gyms are limited, we can still get creative and try things like playing music in the house and having a small dance party.
Poor health is time consuming, exhausting and expensive. We are slowly taking years off the lives of our children by supporting poor eating habits and inactivity. I encourage you to consider small changes you can implement, even if it’s just replacing sugary beverages with water and doing a family activity most days of the week. You’d be surprised how small changes can lead to big results.
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