Family physicians encourage parents to help kids maintain healthy weight

With childhood obesity now being called an epidemic, Minnesota family physicians want parents to know they can influence the nutrition and fitness habits of their children. Studies show that parents play a key role in determining whether children become overweight. A report published in the Journal of Pediatrics showed that children with overweight parents were much more likely to become overweight. While this is in part due to genetics, researchers believe the primary causes of childhood obesity are poor eating habits and low levels of physical activity.

“Kids form habits at an early age,” said Leslie Ahlers, M.D., a family physician at the Waseca Medical Center. “Do they see their moms and dads making healthy food choices? Are moms and dads exercising? If not, it is unlikely these kids will have a strong desire to eat well or stay fit.”

The latest statistics indicate that one child in five is overweight. This means more kids than ever before are at risk for weight-related health problems and diseases like diabetes.

“While parents aren’t the end-all for obesity, they can make family lifestyle changes that will help their kids maintain a healthy weight as they grow,” Dr. Ahlers said.

Here are some tips to help keep your child at a healthy weight:

• Be a good role model. If your kids see you reach for a daily candy bar, instead of an apple, they will likely do the same. You can help form habits that will last a lifetime.

• Encourage them to be active. Plan family outings that involve exercise. Take a walk or go for a bike ride. Go swimming instead of going to a movie.

• Set guidelines for the amount of time your children can watch TV, play video games or spend on the computer. Many experts recommend less than two hours a day.

• Think before you bring it home from the grocery store. Cut back on sugary or high-fat foods. Encourage your child to eat fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods and whole grains while permitting occasional treats. Don't use dessert as a reward. This just teaches your child to value sweets more than other foods.

• Keep healthy snacks on hand. Examples include low-fat cheese, pretzels, yogurt, graham crackers, baby carrots, apples, bananas or grapes. Children should be encouraged to avoid soft drinks and other high-calorie, low nutrient beverages.

• Work on serving smaller portions. Many people eat much more than they need.

• Limit trips through the drive-through. Don’t eat at fast food restaurants more than once a week.

• Eat meal together as a family. Turn off the TV.

If you're concerned that your child may be overweight, you should talk to your family doctor. He or she can calculate your child’s body mass index to see if it falls within a healthy range and then discuss options for weight loss if needed.

“While there are plenty of societal factors working against us,”  Dr. Ahlers added.  “We as parents can lead our kids in the right direction by teaching them that eating right and staying active is not simply a chore, but rather a way of life.”

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