Childhood Obesity: Are we at risk?

According to the American Obesity Association, approximately one in every three children in the United States ages 6 to 11 and adolescents ages 12-19 are either overweight or obese. As Africans, we tend to value fat children and those who eat well are always praised. This creates a great concern because our diet and lifestyle in this country is so different from our home country. When you think of the increasing health risks this trend poses to our children, it demands a paradigm shift in our thoughts and actions.
What is causing this trend?
  1. Lack of adequate physical activity: Our children do not spend enough time keeping physically active. Their activity has been replaced by extended amount of time in front of the TV, computer or video games. Our busy schedules, lack of extended family support and unsafe neighborhoods sometimes does limit our choices as parents and guardians but it is no excuse. Think about the amount of freedom and fun children have back home in Africa playing outside almost all day.
  1. Poor diets:  If you compare the food you grew up eating as a child and what children are eating now, you may be appalled. We have let our busy schedules come in the way of really taking time to feed our children right. We know what foods are best because most of us grew up eating healthy fresh and unprocessed foods. Now we feed them quick-fix foods out of a box or can instead of fresh from the farm or market. Many of our children want hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers and fries. Any time you stop by a fast food restaurant, recognize that you are slowly taking away their quality and quantity of life later in life. What you feed your child today will determine their health in future!
How can you help your child?
  1. Watch the diet:  Get your child on a proper eating schedule with set meal and snack times. Stop the child from drinking and snacking all day long. Offer a fresh fruit and vegetable at every meal. Limit fried and processed foods and instead make your own food at home. Offer healthy snacks like baby carrots, fruit, yogurt, whole wheat crackers. For fluids, offer water and no more than 4 to 8 ounces of 100% juice per day. Limit milk intake to 20 ounces per day. After 2 years of age you can switch from whole milk to 2% or 1% milk and if you have weight concerns skim milk is a good option.  Refer to the resources list I have included at the end of this column for healthy food ideas for children.
  1. Do not force feed: As a parent, your responsibility is to decide what, when and where food is served and the child’s responsibility is how much to eat and whether to eat at all. If your child is not hungry, have them sit at the table and serve them small amounts of food but do not force them to empty the plate. You do not want to diminish their natural ability to tell when they are full because in the long run it may work against them.
  1. Keep them physically active: Take them to the play areas in your neighborhood. Arrange play dates with neighbors and friends as often as possible. Determine what their interests are and engage them in sports at school and in community programs. Let them help with work around the house such as vacuuming, mowing the lawn, and cleaning.
  1. Limit TV watching: The television makes them inactive and exposes them to negative influences from the advertising that is heavily geared towards children. I would suggest, if possible, switch the TV off during the school week. Allow them to only watch about an hour per day over the weekend. You will see your children start to enjoy playing other games.
  1. Be a role model: You as a parent or guardian have the greatest influence over your child.
      You will need to model positive and healthy behavior as far and eating and keeping physically active. Make it a family affair and involve everyone.
  1. Get involved in the schools: Schools do not always offer adequate physical activity and healthy food choices for your child. You will find fast food restaurant choices and vending machines with unhealthy snacks. Get involved as a parent and demand changes that you want to see for your children. These changes are already being seen in some schools. Get involved!
Resources for you
  1. Food Guide Pyramid For Children. Minnesota Department of Health.
  1. My Pyramid For Kids. US Department of Agriculture.
  1. Rent and watch the movie “Super Size Me” by Morgan Spurlock (2004)

About Murugi Mutiga

Murugi holds a Masters of Public Health in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She is a Registered Dietitian and a Licensed Nutritionist in the State of Minnesota. She is a nutrition instructor at Century and Inver Hills Community Colleges and teaches nutrition classes in the community.

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