By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Frequently, after a lecture to seniors, people in the audience approach me to express concerns about young grandchildren with weight problems. Can I give them any advice? Each worries about his or her grandchild becoming another statistic in the alarming rise of childhood obesity.
Over the last three decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of obesity has more than doubled. Among adolescents, it has more than quadrupled. As of 2012, an estimated 18 percent of 6-11 year olds are believed to be obese, up from 7 percent in 1980. For adolescents, an estimated 21 percent, up from 5 percent. Overall, more than a third of youngsters are now either overweight or obese.
Overweight means too much body weight for a particular height. The excess weight can be fat, muscle, bones, and even bodily fluid, or a combination. Obesity, by comparison, refers basically to too much fat. The statistics are frightening because of the consequences of excess weight.
Physical Consequences of Excess Weight
- A higher likelihood to develop risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and pre-diabetes.
- More prone to bone and joint trouble, sleep apnea, asthma, and loss of self-esteem.
And long-term issues:
- Obesity as a youngster means being more likely to be obese in adulthood, and that also means being more prone to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, cancer, and premature death.
- An increased risk of different cancers, including colon, uterine, kidney, pancreas, prostate, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
These are very serious risks. Weight has become a major driver of growing poor health, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world as well. In some parts of Africa, in fact, overweight has replaced malnutrition. The burden on healthcare keeps growing as does the collective weight of the population, including the kids. I’ve read that that today’s kids may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents!
Why such a mess? You don’t have to look far for the answers. Basically, they are symptoms of entire populations increasingly out of sync with nature and common sense. It’s all about basics, and primarily two factors – an unnatural diet and physical inactivity:
- Kids eat too much added sugar and refined carbohydrates. That means too many calories from processed foods including sodas, sweets, and cakes, cookies, bread, bagels, and pizza made with white flour. Today’s standard diet is loaded with excess sweets and refined carbohydrates, generating inflammation in the body and weight gain, pushing kids into diabetes at an unprecedented early age, and setting them up for premature heart disease and early death.
- Many kids fail to get enough exercise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2013 survey of high school students found that only 27 percent had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on all 7 days before the survey, and only 29 percent attended physical education class daily. Kids today spend an extraordinary amount of time inactive, playing video games and watching television, just “hanging out,” and becoming couch potatoes. The sedentary habit takes a firm hold early and typically doesn’t let go, leading to sedentary adults. Regular physical activity means so much in childhood and adolescence: improved strength and endurance, healthy bones and muscles, less anxiety and stress, increased self-esteem, and better weight control. Lack of activity, just like poor diet, contributes to overweight and obesity, and similarly increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, cancer, and the risk of dying prematurely.
Unless kids are put on the right track, and at an early age, human suffering will expand and extend over many decades, placing a massive burden on economies and healthcare. The major benefactor from such prolonged misery will be the pharmaceutical industry serving up drugs, first for juvenile patients who then become adult patients. Decades of sales! Good maybe for the corporate bottom line, but not for the common good. It’s a troubling prospect.
What Can YOU Do?
In my opinion, we need less healthcare, less drugs, and more self-care. We need parents, and grandparents as well, to educate themselves as to the importance of food and exercise in basic human health so that they can influence their offspring and lead them in a healthier direction. It is about people taking responsibility and teaching a lifestyle that prevents health problems instead of creating them. As a doctor, I can tell you that prevention is always easier than cure.
Here are some practical tips for parents and grandparents alike:
- Prevention starts with a healthy lifestyle and it’s never too early to begin. Introduce healthy food choices as young as possible. Very young children naturally prefer sweet and salty tastes and shy away from healthier fare, but they can be definitely influenced by maternal food decisions and the home environment.
- Love isn’t candy or cookies. So don’t ply kids with the sweet stuff for bonding purposes. Once in a while is OK, but if you make it a habit or overdo it, you aren’t doing the youngsters a favor. You are fostering a bad habit. Grandparents or divorcees – keep candy and sweets out of sight when you have the kids over. Offer them fruit instead.
- If you are involved with regular day-caring for a grandchild to help out working parents, be health-conscious in your food choices. Researchers in England have found that children have an increased risk of being overweight when they are fed in these situations by a grandparent. You can find many healthy recipes that the kids will like here on my website or in my book, The Healing Kitchen.
- Introduce kids to healthier snacks like raisins, nut butter on celery sticks, raw nuts like walnuts, cashews, macadamia, and almonds. And, for sure, have fruit and melons on hand. Avoid low-fat yogurt products and typical kid cereals – they are loaded with sugar. Read labels.
- Try to get kids off of sodas and juices and into the habit of drinking water instead. This is a big deal. Most of the added sugar in the diet comes from sweetened drinks.
- Be a role model for youngsters. Eat healthier yourself. Be physically active, for your own good. If you are way overweight yourself, try to do something about it, not only for your own health but for the image that you project to your children or grandchildren.
- If you take the kids out for some fast food, you still have healthier choices, as I have written in my book, The Fast Food Diet. Check out the book and learn about those options.
- Look for opportunities to do things together with the kids, like bike rides, walks in the neighborhood, fishing, or some fun activity that involves physical activity. Get them outside. Lure them away from their computers, video games, and televisions. Don’t let them become “sitting ducks.” Share your passion for Nature.
- Here are several sources with activity ideas:
- Encourage kids to participate in sports. Even if your child or grandchild is far from an all-star, the benefits of having fun and memorable experiences, promoting better health, and making friendships are available to all participants. It doesn’t matter whether the activity is on a recreational or organized basis. If the kids are already involved, show up and root for them. I used to get out and root at my kids’ games, and it made a difference to them that I was there. Even though I was often called away to medical emergencies, it didn’t matter. I had showed up.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Obesity Facts. Published online at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm
- Malecka-Tendera E, Mazur A. Childhood obesity – a pandemic of the twenty-first century. Int J Obesity, 2006. 30:S1-S3. Published online at http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v30/n2s/pdf/0803367a.pdf?origin=publication_detail
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity Facts. Published online at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/physicalactivity/facts.htm
- Pearce A, et al. Is childcare associated with the risk of overweight and obesity in the early years? Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Int J Obesity. 2010. 34(7): 1160-8. Published online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20142828
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