Parents can do many simple things to prevent childhood obesity. It really isn’t complicated, it just requires commitment.
Below are ten strategies moms and dads can implement to prevent obesity in their children. As you try to use them with your child, apply them to yourself as well. Kids are great imitators, and sometimes they learn the most from you when you model the healthy behaviors for them.
Also, it is important to realize that the earlier in your child’s life you implement these principles, the more likely your child will embrace these habits as part of their lifestyle (rather than viewing the strategies as yet another “rule” imposed by mom or dad, a viewpoint so characteristic of teenagers).
1. For moms with newborn babies, breastfeed your baby exclusively until at least six months of age. The CDC has linked breastfeeding with reduced childhood obesity. One theory explaining this is that when parents bottle feed, they pay attention to how many ounces of milk their child has drank. If they know their baby needs six ounces, they might become worried when their little one has only drank half that amount. As a result, parents may “encourage” their child to drink more by repeatedly putting the bottle near the baby's mouth. This causes babies to ignore their internal cues of feeling full, and leads them to overeat. Because we can’t monitor how much infants drink when breastfeeding, there is less pressure to ensure they have “eaten” enough.
2. Don’t force your child to eat everything on his or her plate. Similar to what was previously mentioned, forcing your child to continue eating after they are full encourages them to ignore their internal cues. Rather, allow your child to stop eating whenever he or she feels like it.
3. Don’t use food as a reward for good behavior. Promote other activities that are beneficial for good health instead. Statements like, “I am really proud of you for getting that A. Let’s go bowling tonight to celebrate” may be helpful, as long as bowling night doesn’t become an excuse to also order pizza and ice cream! The options for rewards in the form of physical activity are endless and include visiting a skate rink, indoor/outdoor rock climbing, or hiking trails. Families can also visit a nearby park, lake, or beach.
4. Limit television watching—and all forms of media—to one or two hours per day. If that sounds too stringent to you, don’t take my word for it. This rule was actually set bythe American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) after a study in 1999 found that children spend more than 6 hours per day watching television and/or using other electronic devices. Electronic entertainment not only limits kids from being physically active, but it also hampers their creativity. A great way to limit this form of entertainment is to keep the television set out of your child’s room. You can also designate a corner of the family room aside for all electronic devices (including your own) to be placed during the evening time.
5. Always expose your child to healthy food choices with every meal. This is one rule you should start as soon as your child starts eating solid foods. That’s because our taste buds are defined by what foods we are exposed to. So even if your toddler appears to not be interested in the broccoli on her plate, don’t give up! Continue to offer it to her, and eventually she’ll catch on. And remember to vary the options—even a vegetable lover might get tired of spinach every day! Instead, try to offer vegetables of every color on different days of the week. Suggestions include sweet baby carrots on Monday, crunchy broccoli spears on Tuesday, yellow squash on Wednesday, grilled eggplant slivers on Thursday, and sautéed mushrooms on Friday. For more strategies on how to do this, consider reading The Organic Nanny's Guide to Raising Healthy Kids (see Amazon link below).
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6. Don’t let your dislike of a certain vegetable prevent you from serving it to your child. I do not like peas very much, but I still keep a stash of them in the freezer for our daughter. I also try to avoid using negative words in relation to healthy foods. For example, my husband once mentioned that he thought okra was “too slimy” to eat. I shot him a quick wink to let him know our daughter was in earshot, and immediately responded with “okra tastes really good!”
7. Use the “my food plate” example when preparing meals for your child. The concept is simple—half of your child’s plate should be fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables. You can even purchase a colorful, portion-sized plate demonstrating this concept from Amazon (see link below) which, according to overwhelmingly positive parent reviews, gets cildren aged 2 to 5 years excited about eating their vegetables. Just be mindful t0 use fresh foods: avoid canned vegetables (as they are laden with salt) and canned fruits (which have lots of added sugars).
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8. Allow your child to get 60 minutes of physical activity per day. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and purchase a membership at Gymboree for your son--though you could if it suits your fancy. Rather, take your child to a nearby park on the weekends, which has the advantage of being free. You could also walk up and down your neighborhood during the week, or have a “dance-a-thon” indoors. My daughter always tries to participate when I turn on Lesley Sansone’s Walk Away the Pounds DVD (see link below), which keeps us physically active with very simple, easy-to-follow moves done at home. This is a great one to do when it’s too cold to go out.
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9. Avoid sugary drinks, including sodas and juices. Believe it or not, an 8 oz glass of juice can have as much or more sugar than the same amount of coke. If your child really likes juice, consider diluting it with water. But the best way to eliminate extra calories is to avoid flavored drinks altogether, by simply drinking water.
10. Applaud your child whenever he or she makes a healthy food choice. I wasn’t sure if my three-year-old really understood me when I showed her apples or pears in the grocery store and said, “this is a healthy food, and it tastes really good.” Then one day, she picked out her own fruit at the store. On the way home as she ate it, she said, “Look mommy, I made a healthy choice!” That just touched my heart. For all the things I get wrong along the way as a mom, that was truly something I got right!
For more parenting tips on raising healthy, confident toddlers and preschoolers, visit my blog at www.parentslovetoddlers.com