Today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese - nearly triple the rate 50 years ago, reports the American Heart Association.
Among children today, obesity is causing a broad range of health problems that previously weren't seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels, as well as psychological effects, such as low self-esteem, negative body image and depression.
However, there's good news: Obesity can be stopped and it doesn't take high-tech treatments or cutting-edge medications. The solution begins and ends with the daily decisions we make. Parents and caregivers are essential decision makers when it comes to the nutrition, physical activity and health needs of their children.
The American Heart Association recommends that all children over 2 years old participate in 60 minutes of physical activity a day. If your child or children don't have a full 60-minute activity break each day, try to provide at least two 30-minute periods or four 15-minute periods in which they can engage in vigorous activities appropriate to their age, gender and stage of physical and emotional development.
Here are some activity tips from the American Heart Association to help get kids moving.
Physical activity for kids around the house:
- Get your kids active while doing housework. Place a sticky note on all of the items that need straightening up (like the kitchen table, the sofa, the bed). Your child will collect each sticky note after they clean the item. Make it a friendly competition to see who collects the most stickies. You could even offer a prize. Your kids will be physically active, helping with household chores and having fun.
- Get the entire family involved. After dinner, assign everyone a task in the cleanup. Everything from clearing the dishes, loading the dishwasher, and putting away leftovers can get the family up and moving. Finish off the evening by going for a family walk or doing group physical activities like stretching. Not only will everyone be out of their chair, but this will also be fun bonding time for you and your family.
Physical activity tips to get kids outside:
- Make exercise an easy choice. Try using physical activity to counter something your child doesn't want to do. For instance, make it the routine that your child can ride a bike for 30 minutes before starting homework after school. Your child will beg for 20 more minutes outside.
- Find an activity they love. Some kids just don't like competing in sports. That's OK, there are lots of other ways to be active. Try swimming, dancing, cycling, skateboarding, karate, walking, jumping rope or even, horseback riding. Encourage your child to explore multiple activities to find one they really enjoy.
- Build confidence. Some kids might be embarrassed to participate in sports because they don't think they're good enough. Find time to practice together and boost their confidence.
While we're at it, let's watch what we give the kids while they're playing in the summer heat.
The rising temperatures in summer have people turning to ice cold treats to keep cool, but a Baylor College of Medicine dietitian warns that many of them are laden with calories and fat.
"Summer is definitely a time when we want to enjoy cool, refreshing snacks and drinks when it gets so hot outside," said Kristi King, a registered dietitian with BCM and Texas Children's Hospital. "But those tasty treats can go from your lips straight to your hips."
It's still possible to enjoy summertime sweets by making smart choices and making your own versions at home, King said in a statement.
Iced coffee is popular in the summer and while the coffee itself is not high in calories, the additives are. Save calories by opting for low-fat milk, skipping the whip cream and choosing the smallest size, King said. Even better, make your own at home by brewing coffee then adding ice plus sugar free chocolate syrup or vanilla extract.
Smoothies are another refreshing summer treat but they can be very high in calories - ranging from 180 to 500-plus for a 20 ounce smoothie, King said.
What's important at a smoothie shop is to make sure they are using only fruit and ice or non-fat yogurt, King said. Some places use ice cream or full-fat yogurt or add whole milk and high-sugar fruit juice.
"People think they are having something healthy when in reality it is very high in fat and natural and added sugar," King said. "They're getting walloped with high-fat and calorie base mixtures."
At-home smoothies are another healthy alternative and are especially convenient for breakfast, she said. In a blender, mix ice and fresh or frozen fruit, add a splash of skim milk, put it in a cup and walk out the door. It's not only lower in calories but saves money too.
Don't forget that the ever-popular sweet tea, as well as lemonade, can be high in sugar, King said. Go for an unsweetened tea and add your own zero-calorie sweetener and opt for low-calorie lemonades or other sweetened drinks, she said.
Adult beverages, especially margaritas, can also be high in calories, but most restaurants offer a lower-calorie version, King said. If you don't see it on the menu, ask if the bartender can still make it. Again, making your own at home can help control calories.
Trendy yogurt shops are another source of potentially high calorie goodies, King said, especially because it's hard to control portion size. Most of these shops have one size of cup that's easy to overfill. Topping it with the sweet candy options makes it even higher in calories. Yogurt can still be a good option by choosing a low-fat or sugar-free variety and sticking with toppings like fruit and nuts.
Make frozen yogurt at home by blending your favorite fruit with your favorite variety of yogurt. This is something that kids can help with as well, which may make them more likely to eat it, King said.
Sorbets and sherbets also tend to be lower calorie than traditional ice cream and some yogurts, she said.
King also recommends freezing fruit to eat as a snack.
"Frozen grapes are a great snack and so are frozen banana bites dipped in melted chocolate," she said.