With summertime approaching, it’s easy to slack off on ensuring good eating habits and regulating the amount of physical activity that kids need to stay fit and healthy. As parents and caregivers, we are at the forefront of promoting healthy eating habits and activities for our children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 35% of young adults in the United States are obese. Approximately 1 in 6 (18%) youth ages 2-19 is obese. This number has tripled in the last generation alone. The National Institutes of Health reports that almost 32% of U.S. children and adolescents are either overweight or obese.
A Mental Health Risk
A recent nationwide study from Sweden comparing more than 12,000 Swedish children who had undergone obesity treatment with more than 60,000 matched controls linked obesity to an increased risk of developing anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. This increase is independent of traditional risk factors such as parental psychiatric illness and socioeconomic status.
Making a Plan
Parents often ask how many calories their children need. For an average child who is growing and developing normally with a normal level of activity, it is usually unnecessary to count calories. However, knowing how many calories your child needs per day can help you plan your child’s nutrition and ensure a healthy diet for the family. Estimated amounts of calories needed to maintain energy balance for various gender and age groups vary with the three different levels of physical activity. The following chart is the USDA dietary guidelines for Americans. This chart gives you a sense of how many calories (ENERGY IN) your family members need. The estimates are rounded to the nearest 200 calories. The chart uses the Institute of Medicine equation to determine calorie estimates.
Bad eating habits and low activity levels are patterns that are usually developed in childhood and continue into adulthood. These patterns lead to obesity with increased risks of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and osteoarthritis as adults. It is however important to stress that ‘staying fit’ and ‘being thin’ are not the same. In a society that sadly glorifies “thinness,” many of our overweight children are mocked by peers. This can lead to low self-esteem. Bad diet not only causes medical problems of obesity and related conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, bone and joint problems. A bad diet can also adversely affect mental health, behavior, and learning.
Should Children Diet?
Do we put the overweight kids on a diet? The simple answer is ‘NO.’ Children should not go on a diet unless it is medically indicated to be on a special diet due to a related or underlying medical problem. If your child is overweight due to poor eating habits, then starting to eat healthy coupled with moderate amounts of exercise and physical activity should help them start losing weight. This is the best way to ensure that your child is in the recommended range of norms for weight and body mass index for age. If your child is obese and has related medical problems, it is necessary to work closely with your pediatrician to regulate their weight loss. Often your pediatrician will provide a referral to a specialist and a dietician. They can take the right steps to monitor weight loss and treat related medical problems.
During summer vacation, children are more likely to become less active and indulge in junk foods. Children need a diet that helps them grow and develop. Such a diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates for energy, calcium for bones and teeth, and a moderate amount of sugars, good fats and salt. Stock up on fruits and vegetables as kids reach for what snacks are made available at home. Whole grains and low-fat, protein-rich options for breakfast and meals during summer help kids develop a taste for healthy options. These good habits tend to continue when school resumes. Cut down on saturated fats and sugars. Lemonade, juice and soda are especially tempting during summer and add empty calories. Food pyramids are a great resource to find out what your child needs and in what proportion. Promote planned outdoor activities for kids through summer camps and as a family.