With obesity rates rising for children worldwide, it’s important for everyone, including parents, teachers, and all caregivers, to know what they can do to help children avoid gaining unhealthy amounts of weight. With the exception of a very few children, obesity is most often the result of unhealthy eating habits. Some important other related factors include a person’s genetics, environment, behavior, and socioeconomic status.
Childhood obesity leads to long-term health consequences that last into adulthood. These include high blood pressure, elevated blood fats, type 2 diabetes mellitus, liver disease, arthritis, asthma, anxiety, depression, and many other diseases. Obesity also comes with social stigma that can lead to low self-esteem, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment.
If children are already overweight or obese, there are various ways to help them return to a healthy weight, including working with their pediatrician, dietitians, physical therapists, and behavioral counselors. Now, preventing obesity starts with a conversation about healthy eating behaviors including what, when, and how much to eat as well as how much physical activity to get.
Here are three practices for home and school to help children build healthy eating habits for life: limit sugar intake, control portion size, and pay attention to the types of food children eat.
One of the first things that can be done is limiting sugar intake, particularly sweet beverages. Children between ages 2 and 18 years old should consume less than 25 grams, or roughly 6 teaspoons, of added sugar each day. This is less sugar than many may realize. One can of soda contains about 39 grams, or 9 teaspoons of sugar. Juice also contains concentrated sugar even though it’s a natural product. One apple juice carton contains 28 grams, or 7 teaspoons of sugar. Having either one of these beverages is more sugar than a child should be consuming in an entire day, so it’s best to stick to water.
Next is controlling portion size, which varies based on the age and height of the child. In order to help estimate what each of the serving sizes looks like, some people use different parts of the eater’s hand—an adult’s hand for an adult’s portion and a child’s hand for a child’s portion. The size of a glass of milk should be roughly the size of the child's fist, and the palm of the hand is about the right size for a serving of meat or fish, and about two handfuls is an appropriate size for snacks such as nuts. Using smaller plates at the table can help reduce portion size if a child seems to be eating too much. One more important thing is spacing eating throughout the day. For most kids this means three meals per day and up to two to three snacks. That’s much better than eating a lot of food right at the end of the day, which is more likely to lead to weight gain.
Finally, what a child eats is also very important, so let’s build a few practice meals. Ideally plates should be about 1/2 fruits and vegetables, 1/4 whole grains (like rice or pasta), and 1/4 protein. Choose a variety of foods to provide a full array of nutrients including fats from foods like avocados, nuts, and fish and at least one type of vegetable or fruit, carbohydrates from whole grains, and proteins such as lentils, meat, or eggs. Drinks for children can include water or drinks with low or no added sugar like dairy, soy milk, or nut milk. As a general rule, children should decide how much to eat from the amount that they are served. They’re typically good at self-regulating the number of calories they need, so don’t force them to finish every meal because the number of calories they need may vary from day to day. Also don’t give up if a child claims to not like a vegetable, as studies suggest that children need up to 10 exposures before they try a new food. This doesn’t mean that showing your child broccoli five nights in a row will win them over, but also don’t give up the first time the food gets rejected.
All right, as a quick recap: Obesity rates are rising, and obesity affects lifelong health. Obesity is usually the result of unhealthy eating habits. But, this can change at home and in the classroom by reducing sugar and avoiding sweet beverages like juice and soda. In addition, children should eat age-appropriate portions and shouldn’t be forced to finish every meal because they’re typically good at self-regulating the number of calories they need. In general, a plate of food should be about 1/2 vegetables and fruits, 1/4 whole grains, and 1/4 protein.