A pediatrician’s diet and exercise tips to battle obesity, from baby to teen.
It seems most people love a chubby baby, and in many cases, those big cheeks and belly rolls are a perfectly normal part of development that your child will eventually shed – especially when they learn to crawl, walk and become more active.
However, when baby fat continues to hang on through the toddler years and beyond, it could be a sign of trouble down the road. That is one of the reasons pediatricians closely monitor BMI (body mass index) at each well child visit.
Today 1 out of 5 children in the United States are obese, and the rates are increasing for both teens and adults. Some studies have estimated that 40 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 are struggling with obesity, and disproportionately so in the Black and Hispanic communities. For perspective, a BMI that is above the 85th percentile indicates your child is overweight; anything above the 95th percentile is considered obese.
Being overweight can threaten your child’s ability to achieve their full potential as a healthy, happy, productive adult. In our office, we are treating teens with type 2 diabetes who require daily medication, including injections of insulin. Recent studies have shown that eye, skin and kidney problems resulting from diabetes occur faster in teens than adults. There are many other obesity related risks, as well, including liver disease and cirrhosis, hypertension, sleep apnea, heart conditions and depression.
Our diet choices and a sedentary lifestyle play a big role in the weight epidemic we are witnessing among children. In today’s world, parents need to mindful about managing their child’s weight right from the start.
Babies and Toddlers
Breastfeeding your baby is one of the most beneficial nutritional choices you can make. Breastfed infants have a lower incidence of weight issues later in life, in addition to a host of other developmental and immune system-boosting benefits. Pumping and bottle-feeding breast milk when it’s not possible to nurse is a great alternative. Recognizing that not every mother can or chooses to breastfeed, the golden rule for formula, which contains fats and proteins that aren’t broken down as readily as those in breast milk, is 32 to 36 ounces a day for adequate growth and development. Of course, your pediatrician will take your baby’s unique needs into consideration when helping you come up with a specific feeding plan.
Refrain giving your baby juice, which is half sugar, until they reach 12 months – and then no more than 4 ounces per day. Recent research finds that 61% of babies and 98% of toddlers consume added sugars, mainly from flavored yogurt and fruit drinks, according to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (At around 6 months, it’s also important to start giving babies sips of fluoridated water to promote healthy teeth development.)
A good balanced diet should contain at least 5 to 6 fruits and/or vegetables per day. Babies should be introduced to these food starting at 4 to 6 months or according to your pediatrician’s instructions. This helps to reduce food allergies and incorporates variety into your child’s diet.
Toddlers are normally very picky, and the tendency for parents may be to substitute healthier foods for fried or high-carb foods just to get them to eat something. Try to resist that urge. I promise you that your child will not become under-nourished if they skip a few meals, and when they are hungry, they will eat!
Adolescents and Teens
From the moment our children are able to start eating solids, it’s important for parents to lead by example and model healthy eating behaviors. If they see you buying or eating sweet or fried foods, they will think it is fine for them to eat, too. Of course, as the child gets older, an occasional sweet is fine in moderation (i.e. -- two cookies, a bag of popcorn, baked chips).
By age two, talk to your pediatrician about transitioning to low-fat or skim milk (unless your child is underweight), and keep to about two cups a day, since they are getting calcium from other foods and it’s been suggested that too much of the mineral may inhibit iron absorption.
While avoiding fast and processed foods is ideal but not realistic, when dining out try to keep a child’s or teen’s portion to under 600 calories as a healthy guide.
Exercise for Every Age
Every year, I see fewer children outside after school and on weekends playing. The lure of 24/7 streaming and video games is contributing to lack of activity and development of weight-related chronic diseases in children.
If possible, try to limit TV or video game time to no more than two hours a day (and none before bedtime as research shows that the blue light from these LED screens interferes with sleep cycles). Encourage your older children and teens to get outside and walk or bike more. An exercise regimen of 20 to 30 minutes at least 3 to 4 times per week for all teens and adults goes a long way in weight management. Pick up a jump rope for 10 minutes per day – this is a great aerobic activity for parents and kids!
It’s important to remember that every child is different, and your pediatrician can help to provide an individualized diet and exercise plan based on your child and his or her unique needs. Reversing the child obesity problem won’t be easy. But with a little knowledge, guidance and of course, lots of love, we can help our children form good habits that will stick with them as adults.