Helping kids achieve a healthy weight during the pandemic
3/11/2021 by Kristine Penza, A.P.R.N., C.N.P.; Tara Kaufman, M.D.; Michaeleen Burroughs, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.; Eric DeAngelis; Sarah Dramstad
Today, nearly 40% of American children are overweight or obese, compared to a 5% obesity rate in the 1970s. Being obese or overweight increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other chronic medical conditions that can begin as early as the teenage years and continue into adulthood. Not only does carrying extra weight affect health and quality of life, it also can affect mental well-being. Being overweight can lead to poor body image, low self-esteem, unhealthy weight control, bullying and depression. That's why your primary care provider may have addressed your child's weight during a well-child visit.
If you've had this discussion with your child's provider, you know there is a wealth of resources to help you — from nutrition information to healthy living programs just for kids. The trick is to apply that information at home. Here are some techniques and tips for creating an environment at home that benefits not just your child, but the entire family.
Staying on track during the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges to maintaining a healthy weight for children. Attending school online from home limits opportunities to play with friends, increases screen time and makes it harder to follow a schedule in the day. Having more access to snacks around the house can lead to mindless eating and weight gain. Everyone's busy schedules also can make it harder to enjoy mealtimes together. Here are some tips to stay on track:
- Designate certain times of the day to have family meals or snack time.
- Keep meals and snack time at the kitchen or dining room table, and not in front of screens.
- Stock up on healthier snacks and keep them in sight for children and adolescents to grab.
- Limit how many sweets and treats are in the household, whether you buy them or make them at home.
- Encourage kids and adolescents to take breaks from screens when possible and participate together in some form of physical activity or movement.
Make it a family affair. Any changes in eating and lifestyle will be good for everyone. Younger children rely on family members to provide their meals and snacks, so providing nutritious foods early can influence their decisions later in life as they transition to adolescence and adulthood. Having family meals at the dinner table is also a great opportunity to connect and enjoy time together.
Change the focus. Make the changes about healthy eating and activity rather than weight. Don't reward or punish kids with food. Shaming is not effective and may have the opposite effect on making positive behavior changes. Compliment your children on lifestyle changes, such as choosing to play outside over video games inside, rather than losing a few pounds.
Take action. Children learn fast, and they learn best by example. Decide on healthy habits you would like to create and get started step-by-step. Discuss the concrete benefits of these actions, such as fun with movement or good energy from eating a healthy meal or snack. Children are more likely to adopt these habits if they participate with family members.
Adopt new ways of eating. Some behaviors are known to promote weight gain, including skipping breakfast; eating meals in a restaurant or ordering takeout (which often have larger portions); eating too fast; eating in front of screens (like phones, computers, TV, etc.); eating less nutritious foods; and eating when you're not hungry. Positive eating habits include eating meals together; choosing more fruits and vegetables; eating at regular times; and preparing meals from scratch.
In short, every family is different in making healthy changes with food choices and activity. Just remember to take it one step at a time, notice immediate benefits to healthy habits, and have fun. Your primary care provider can be a good partner on the road to great health habits and can answer any questions you have along the way.
Kristine Penza, A.P.R.N., C.N.P., Tara Kaufman, M.D., and Michaeleen Burroughs, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., are members of the Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson Childhood Obesity Task Force. Eric DeAngelis and Sarah Dramstad are dietetic interns at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The Childhood Obesity Task Force is committed to preventing and treating childhood obesity in primary care and community settings.