One-third of children are overweight or obese: 4 strategies to help them scale back

Childhood obesity is an emerging epidemic: one-third of children are overweight or obese. 

 Life as an overweight kid isn’t easy. For one thing, such kids are much more vulnerable to being picked on—a study in the journal Pediatrics found that children in Grades 3 to 6 who were obese were 65% more likely to be bullied than their peers of normal weight. They also suffer from low self-esteem, sadness and loneliness, according to Sylvia Rimm, author of Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Kids.

Children carrying excess pounds are more likely to grow into adults who tip the scales and are putting themselves at future risk of adverse conditions such as early onset heart disease, stroke and arthritis as well as type 2 diabetes. 

 Protecting these children, especially obese children—from both social ills and physical problems—requires taking action in order to help them reduce their rate of weight gain while allowing for normal growth and development. Dramatic weight reduction diets aren’t the answer. Neither, in most cases, is medication or surgery.

 So what does work? Early screening for one thing. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends children six years and older be screened for obesity. For those who are diagnosed with obesity the most effective treatment is behavioural intervention—along with parental involvement—to change unhealthy habits. These interventions, provided by health care professionals such as family physicians, dietitians and counsellors, focus on four key areas: 

  1. Eating right: There are a host of small but significant changes families can make to ensure balanced nutrition, everything from limiting junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages, to increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, eating out less and making time for regular family meals. 
  2. Getting physical: Whether it’s in the form of unstructured free playtime or organized sports, children ages six to 17 should get 30-60 minutes of exercise every day. The activity doesn’t need to be continuous—several short bursts of exercise can help meet this goal.
  3. Going lean on screens: There’s a direct link between screen time and obesity due to increased snacking while being sedentary and exposure to ads for high-calorie foods. One study found that the odds of being overweight were almost five times greater for adolescents who watch more than five hours of TV per day, compared with those who watch less than two hours.
  4. Boosting shut-eye: Excessive media use is associated with reduced sleep. Kids age six to 13 need nine to 11 hours of sleep a night. Restricting the use of phones, tablets and computers at least 30 minutes before bedtime can help. So can removing electronic devices from your child’s bedroom. 

 It can be challenging for parents to instill new habits around eating, exercise, screen time and sleep. It’s important to remember you don’t need to go it alone—reach out to your health care professional for help.