What's the reason behind the childhood obesity epidemic?
While people often like to look for a simple reason for which to blame on the rise in childhood obesity, it is likely best to break it down to its most basic factors -- too many calories and too little physical activity.
When you think about it like that, then it is easier to see how there is likely no one thing that is to blame, but that more kids are likely overweight because of a combination of factors, including:
- larger portion sizes
- extra calories from soda and fruit drinks
- eating more fast food
- playing more video games
- eating more processed foods (fast food at home)
- spending more time on the internet
- watching too much TV
- less time in active free play
That gives you more than enough reasons for a child to be overweight, without even having to look at things like trans fats or high fructose corn syrup.
It also provides a hint to why it seems like so many children can't lose weight.
Common Weight Loss Setbacks and Mistakes
Thinking about some of the reasons why kids become overweight, it would seem like it should be easy to lose weight -- just eat less and exercise more. Of course, losing weight isn't as easy as it sounds and kids often face many setbacks.
Parents are often well aware of these setbacks as their kids, and often they themselves, struggle to lose weight.
One of the biggest weight loss setbacks is often that they simply give up because they try to do much at once. For example, they may switch from whole to skim milk, cut out all soda and fruit juice, and not allow any junk food or snacks in the house. At the same time, they may have signed their child, who previously never got off the couch, up for a sport and are taking them to sessions with a personal trainer twice a week.
This kind of extreme lifestyle makeover is almost always going to fail. Why? It is too strict and hard to follow.
That is why it is often recommended that parents go much slower -- starting with small changes and then working up from there.
In addition to going too fast, other common weight loss mistakes include:
- Not setting realistic weight loss goals. For example, a good first goal is to simply stop gaining weight or even to stop gaining weight so quickly. If your child meets that goal after a few months, you can then modify his diet and activity level and work towards a goal of losing some weight.
- Continuing to allow a lot of sedentary activities, such as watching TV, playing video games, or playing on the internet, etc.
- Allowing other family members to set a poor example by continuing to have poor eating and exercise habits.
- Not incorporating increased exercise (at least an hour of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity each day and more vigorous intensity physical activities at least three days a week) into their plan to get to a healthier weight. You may have to start with just 15 to 20 minutes a day, though, and slowly work your way up to an hour a day if your child is really out of shape.
- Continuing to get a lot of extra calories from drinks, an extra large after-school or bedtime snack, or over-large portion sizes.
- Not learning about healthy eating habits, and instead concentrating on just trying to limit calories.
- Skipping meals, especially breakfast, instead of working to limit oversized portion sizes at each meal, being sure to eat three meals a day.
- Not encouraging their kids to eat five or more fruits and vegetables each day.
And perhaps the biggest mistake, and the hardest part of losing weight for kids and adults, is not getting motivated to eat healthier and exercise more.
Kids Who Can't Lose Weight
Once a child starts to try and lose weight and fails, or continues to gain more weight, this will often be the time that a parent suspects that their child has a hormonal problem.
For the great majority of overweight children, though, the only imbalance they will have is between the amount of energy they are taking in (calories from food/drinks) and the amount of energy they are using (exercising and daily activities).
If they truly are doing all the right things, then they likely need to do a little more -- either cutting back on a few hundred more calories each day or getting more exercise each day.
It can help to get an estimate of how many calories a child actually needs each day and then compare that to what he is actually getting. Parents will often find that a child is getting more calories than they expected or that they have overestimated how many calories they need each day. The child may also need to exercise more: The latest recommendations for one hour of exercise each day is really to prevent obesity, not to help lose weight.
You might also try to help your child:
- by keeping a log to record how well your child is doing being active, cutting back on watching TV, and cutting back on fast food, etc.
- get motivated to exercise by finding a sport he might like to play, which will likely be more fun then just running on a treadmill or walking around the neighborhood
- get motivated to eat better by providing a lot of healthy snacks, drinks, and healthy foods and not having junk food in the house
- get motivated to have healthier habits by getting the whole family involved in eating well and being physically active each day
- by providing positive feedback for the good things that your child has done, such as eating less, cutting back on drinking soda, or eating less fast food
If your child just can't lose weight, it would also be a good time to talk to your pediatrician and perhaps see a registered dietician to talk about your child's diet a little more. At this point, your pediatrician can also evaluate your child for other medical conditions that can cause obesity, such as Cushing's syndrome, hypothyroidism, and medication side effects.
AAP. Expert Committee Recommendations Regarding the Prevention, Assessment, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity: Summary Report. Pediatrics Vol. 120 No. Supplement 4 December 1, 2007 pp. S164-S192.
AAP. Children, Adolescents, Obesity, and the Media. Pediatrics Vol. 128 No. 1 July 2011, pp. 201-208.