Obesity threatens the health of today’s children. While working as a dietitian for the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Program, I saw a mindboggling number of overweight children. Luckily for parents, grandparents, and any other caretakers of children, there are things you can do.
13 Considerations for Reducing the Risk of Childhood Obesity:
Total Calorie Intake
Total calorie intake does not seem to have a strong association with obesity in children. However, it’s very difficult to accurately assess dietary intake via dietary assessment tools such as a dietary recall or food frequency questionnaire. People have a tendency to underreport the amount they eat.
Evidence supports an unclear association between dietary fat and obesity in children. Some studies have found dietary fat does lead to a higher body fat, some studies didn’t find any association, and some have found mixed results. Our bodies need some fat—just not too much, but not all fats are equal. As a mom with kids, I recommend offering healthy fats such as avocado oil, avocados, olives, olive oil, organic canola oil, coconut oil, coconut flakes, all types of nuts and nut butters, and fish.
Calcium and Dairy Products
Recent research suggests lower intakes of dairy products and/or calcium are associated with obesity in children. Take a look at the results from a couple studies:
1) In a study of 52 Caucasian children monitored from 2 months to 8 years of age, calcium intake from milk, cheese, and yogurt was associated with a lower percentage body fat at 8 years of age.
2) Girls 9 to 14 years of age who consumed diets rich in calcium weighed less and had less abdominal fat than did girls who consumed less calcium.
If your kids love dairy like mine do, I highly recommend feeding them organic milk, cheese, and yogurt, and if you really want to be a stickler, also buy organic cream cheese, cottage cheese, and sour cream. Choosing organic ensures your children aren’t eating bovine growth hormones and antibiotics, among other things.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are promoted for preventing childhood obesity because they’re low in calories, high in fiber, and add bulk to your stomach, which makes you feel fuller faster (satiety). The evidence supports a modest effect of fruit and vegetable intake in protecting against increased adiposity in children.
If your child turns his nose up to most produce you offer, don’t give up! Check out these tips for navigating a “choosy” eater. Also, not only are organic fruits and vegetables healthier for kids, they also taste so much better, in my opinion. I know organic costs more, so consider purchasing organic for those foods on the Dirty Dozen list. Check out the 2014 Dirty Dozen Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Intake of 100% fruit juice is related to adiposity in children if it is consumed in large quantities, ≥ 12 fl oz/day.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends fruit juice consumption be limited to 4-6 oz. per day for children 1 to 6 years old. For children 7 to 18 years old, juice intake should be limited to 8 to 12 oz. per day.
Avoid Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, Including Soft Drinks
Evidence strongly supports a positive association between the intake of calorically sweetened beverages and adiposity in children. This includes soda and sugar-sweetened fruit drinks. Regardless of your child’s weight now, reducing sweetened drink consumption is one strategy to manage the weight of preschool children. A concern with excessive consumption of sweetened beverages is that it takes the place of more nutrient-rich or lower calorie alternatives. Children should be encouraged to avoid high-calorie, nutrient-poor beverages.
Evidence supports the view that obese children and adolescents are more likely to skip breakfast than their leaner counterparts. Obese children also have been reported to eat smaller breakfasts than their non-obese peers. I know mornings can be hectic, so determine a quick, “go-to” breakfast that’s balanced with carbohydrates, protein, and some fat. This might be a piece of whole wheat toast with almond butter and a glass of milk. Simple.
Eating Out, Including Fast Food
Evidence supports the view that consumption of food away from home, particularly at fast food restaurants, may be associated with body fat, especially among adolescents.
Increased portion sizes may be associated with increased body fat in children. Parents, as you can imagine, appropriate portion sizes vary according to age. For information about age-specific portion sizes, go to USDA’s My Plate website.
If your child is old enough, allow them to serve themselves. They have a better idea of how hungry they are and are less likely to over serve themselves.
Snacking frequency or snack food intake is not likely associated with adiposity in children. Here is my favorite snack bar recipe.
Evidence supports a positive association between frequency of family meals and dietary quality in adolescents. Increased frequency of family meals is associated with greater intakes of fruits, vegetables, and milk and lower consumption of fried food and soft drinks. It is also associated with higher nutrient intakes (including calcium, iron, vitamins, and fiber) and lower intakes of saturated and trans fats. I wrote a blog a while back about how dinner rituals correlate with a child’s weight.
Parental control over children's dietary intake does not consistently seem to be related to obesity in children. One study found no association between parental control and adiposity among boys but demonstrated an inverse association between parental control and adiposity among girls. Another study found a positive significant association of parental control with adiposity among both boys and girls in the sample.
The evidence is strong that daily moderate/vigorous physical activity helps reduce adiposity in overweight/obese youths. Daily moderate/vigorous physical activity of ≥60-minute cumulative duration is likely to have a beneficial effect for normal weight youths and is unlikely to harm them.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
Davis, Matthew et al. Recommendations for Prevention of Childhood Obesity. Pediatrics 2007;S229-S253.
Koplan JP, Liverman CT, Kraak VI, eds. Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance. Washington, DC: National Academies Press;2005.
American Dietetic Association.Childhood Overweight Evidence Analysis Project: updated 2006.
Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Frazier AL, et al. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Fam Med.2000;9:235– 240.
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