Parents can help combat childhood obesity

The last two decades have shown a rise in childhood obesity, including children in Army families. As obesity numbers in children continue to climb, so do conditions associated with obesity, for example, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea and high cholesterol.

Early detection and treatment can reduce the likelihood that these health problems will occur. Parents can advocate for their children by asking questions of their child’s healthcare provider during the child’s annual check-up and by establishing healthy habits at home.

The most widely used diagnostic tool to identify weight problems within a population is Body Mass Index. BMI is a statistical measure calculated from a person’s weight and height. For children, BMI is age and sex specific. BMI doesn’t measure body fat; it identifies healthy body weight based on comparisons between a child’s height and weight as plotted on a growth curve.

A child’s BMI is typically calculated as part of an annual well-visit physical. After the BMI is calculated for children and teens, the BMI number is plotted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s BMI-for-age growth charts (for either boys or girls) to obtain a percentile range. The general rule of thumb is that overweight children statistically fall between the 85th and 94th percentile compared to the weight of their peers (same sex and age). Obesity is defined as the 95th percentile or above on the growth chart used.

BMI is one indicator for obesity. A child’s doctor can help identify whether his or her weight is a concern. Parents can help by providing the following information to their child’s healthcare provider:

• Family history of obesity and weight-related health problems, such as diabetes.

• Child’s eating habits and calorie intake.

• Child’s physical activity level.

If a child is overweight or obese, his or her parent can try making the following small changes to eating habits right away. In the morning, use fat-free or reduced-fat milk in cereal, and purchase whole-grain cereals. Add fruit to the morning meal. Limit items such as toaster pastries.

Prepared lunches from home will enable parents to have more control over their child’s caloric intake. For lunch, consider sandwiches made of whole-grain breads and try mustard or low-fat mayonnaise as a condiment. Include fruit; it’s sweet and can satisfy a sweet tooth. Carrots and celery are great in lunches and can be served with peanut butter, fat-free yogurt or fat-free ranch dressing for dipping. Avoid snacks containing partially hydrogenated oils such as coconut and palm oils. Last, provide a bottle of water.

Think differently about dinner. Engage children in the cooking process and portion food in a serving dish that would equal a serving size for each family member. Passing the serving dishes around will teach children to take smaller food portions. Try broiling or baking something instead of frying it. Add any kind of vegetables and minimize starches like potatoes or white rice.

When it comes to dessert, offer healthy options such as a frozen fruit bar or a yogurt smoothie. Angel food cake is another option and it’s fat free.

Exercise is a great family activity. Walks after dinner are a nice way to burn calories. Let children help plan the physical activity regimen. On warmer days, ride bikes, run or play a sport. If the weather is rainy, play indoor games. Check out an exercise or dancing DVD from the library, or simply play a CD and have fun making up silly dances.

Help combat childhood obesity by encouraging healthy eating habits in children and encouraging them to be physically active.