VARUN REDDY (originally published August 2011)
It is a commonly accepted fact that obesity runs rampant among children in the United States today. The statistic that one out of every 3 children meets the criteria for obesity is not some worst-case scenario prediction for the future – it is an alarming reality. This is the product of various combinations of influences, including more time spent watching TV and playing video games (with 8-18 year olds spending an average of 7.5 hours a day), and parents’ on-the-go lifestyles that prevent them from carefully preparing nutritious meals. Accessibility of different foods also plays a significant role, as many families live in communities with far greater access to unhealthy but cheap fast food establishments than supermarkets that offer healthier foods.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that many children rely on school food for at least one meal a day. In many instances, schools offer less healthy options and considerable access to sugar drinks and snacks. Many schools also allow advertising of significantly less healthy food choices at the expense of a valuable opportunity to emphasize more nutritious alternatives. This kind of climate makes eating healthy a far more difficult task for children.
Compounding the magnitude of this crisis is the limited amount of time that schools devote to physical activity for the students. In fact, only about a third of students attended some kind of physical education class on a daily basis. The consensus opinion prescribes at least sixty minutes of exercise for children every day, but a 2007 study showed that only 18% of students in grades 9-12 were fulfilling this goal.
It is often said that children are very impressionable – the same goes for their health. The decisions that children make will have long-term implications. High cholesterol diets can lead to signs of atherosclerosis even in childhood, and this could be a trigger for heart disease later down the road. Children who don’t get enough calcium could end up developing osteoporosis (decreasing bone mass). Those who are overweight because of poor diet and physical inactivity are also more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. This is why it is critical for children to cultivate good lifestyle habits early in life to prevent complications in the future. Given that many children encounter circumstances that do not adequately facilitate good nutrition and fitness, it is imperative that they take a more active role in the management of their health. This necessitates both parents and children becoming more knowledgeable about all of the components of a healthy diet as well as understanding the important nutrition terminology so they can ensure that children are getting enough of the nutrients that they need and minimizing consumption of everything else.
The most important term to know is the calorie. This is the fundamental unit used to measure the energy that we obtain from our food. It is critical to strike a healthy balance between the amount of calories that we take in through food and the amount that we burn off through exercise. If you take in a lot more calories than you are using, then you run the risk of undesired weight gains and obesity. This concept forms the integral foundation for our understanding of the importance of healthy eating and exercise.
Another important term, fat, is accompanied by a host of misconceptions. Yes, too much fat is unhealthy for you. It is the most calorie-rich of the energy-providing nutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates), and trans fatty acids found in fried foods and saturated fats both cause high levels of LDL, or “bad cholesterol”, which could clog your arteries. However, that does not mean fat should be excluded from the diet. In fact, we need it to absorb the vital fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K into the bloodstream. As an example, fruits and vegetables are supposed to comprise half of the diet, but without fats, we could not obtain some of the most important nutrients that they provide. Fat also provides fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acid that our bodies are unable to produce. These help regulate inflammation, brain development, blood coagulation, and healthy skin and hair. The takeaway message to relay to children is that fats in small quantities are an important part of a healthy diet.
However, nutrition is only one half of a healthy lifestyle. As was mentioned before, one of the basic principles behind avoiding weight gains and obesity is balancing the calories you consume with the calories that you burn through exercise. This starts with curbing the major driving factors behind a sedentary lifestyle and limiting the amount of time that children spend with entertainment media (TV, video games, computer games, etc.) every day. Children who spend more than four hours a day in front of a screen are more likely to be overweight than those who watch two or fewer hours. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than two years should spend no more than 1-2 hours every day in front of a screen.
Limiting these factors now frees up time for children to devote to play and exercise. Parents should lead by example in order to encourage their children to engage in significant physical activity every day. Playing or exercising together is ideal, and it is important to stress the countless benefits of exercise to children so that they understand why they need to do it. In addition to helping prevent obesity and heart disease, exercise helps build strong bones and muscles. It also improves psychological well-being, prevents feelings of depression, and makes you more alert and ready to learn in school. This sense of well-being comes from the release of chemicals called endorphins which make you feel good.
Committing to a healthy lifestyle takes hard work and dedication, but it will pay dividends for the rest of your life. The earlier you make this commitment, the better. This is why childhood is the best time to adopt healthy eating and exercising habits; learning them at this impressionable age will make them more likely to stick with you down the road. It is one of the most vital and beneficial decisions that people could make for themselves, and it is important for adults to help children become more mindful of the significance of this choice.