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5 Healthy Habits That Help Prevent Childhood Obesity

The things you learn as a child can last a lifetime. Teach your kids how to live an active, healthy lifestyle to avoid the effects of obesity.


Iowa is one of the most obese states in the country. For adults, the state ranks fourth, with more than a third of the population considered obese.

The childhood obesity rates are half that, but are still high enough to rank tenth nationally. While there are many causes of obesity — genetics among them — many contributing factors start in childhood.

Obese children are more likely to become obese adults and develop all the health consequences that come with obesity, from diabetes to cancer. But it’s not a guarantee.

As a parent, you’re the biggest influencer of your child’s environment, helping them to develop the positive habits that form a healthy lifestyle. So you can help manage their weight now and set the stage for healthy weight in the future.

family sits around the dinner table laughing with two young children

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Model healthy habits to keep your children at a healthy weight.

Kids don’t always listen to their parents. But they often model their behavior — even when they’re actively striving to not turn out like their parents. So the best thing you can do to teach your children healthy habits is to demonstrate them.

Environment has a major impact on obesity. When nutritious foods and active lifestyle choices are present, they encourage healthier choices. These habits become ingrained in children and serve them into adulthood.

1. Prepare balanced meals with reasonable portions.

When you prepare meals, you have greater control over the ingredients, nutrition content and portions. Follow the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines to prepare healthy meals for your whole family. A balanced meal is made up of half fruits and veggies and half protein and whole grains.

Unless you have teenage boys with voracious appetites, be conscious of how much you’re putting on your kids’ plates. Children don’t require the same amount of calories as adults, so their portions should be smaller.

This is especially important with little ones and picky eaters. You can encourage them to eat balanced meals by placing smaller portions on their plate. If your kids are still hungry, they can have seconds of their favorites. This strategy helps you ensure you’re not overfeeding your kids and that they’re getting the right amounts of fruits and vegetables.

2. Limit sugar and other unhealthy temptations.

Every parent understands the importance of convenience. Pre-packaged snacks make your life easier! And grocery stores are stocked with grab-and-go options for kids of all ages.

But they’re often overstuffed with added sugar, high fat content, sodium or a mix of all three. Sugar is particularly problematic for children, contributing to childhood obesity, a weakened immune system and future disease.

The best way to eat sugar — and nutrition — is through real, whole foods. Think apples instead of apple juice. Create your own convenient options by pre-making healthy snacks like trail mix, raisins, unsweetened cereals and fruit or veggie samplers. Keep the sugary foods out of sight and out of reach so they’re eaten only as the sweet treats that they are.

3. Create an environment of activity.

Exercise is the other core component of a healthy lifestyle. Kids need at least an hour of physical activity every single day to help balance out their calorie consumption. Exercise has benefits beyond weight management, decreasing blood pressure, strengthening bones and improving mental health.

Between after-school activities, mealtime, homework and bedtime, it can feel like there is no room for anything else. And you might think your kids are getting plenty of physical activity at school during recess or P.E.

But children need to be active at home as well to avoid too much sedentary time. In those times where everyone settles in with a screen, instead schedule some exercise or a fun family activity that gets everybody up and moving, like a walk, bike ride or game of tag in the yard.

4. Set limits on screen time.

Screen time is sedentary time. When that’s taking the place of physical activity, it can lead to weight issues and form habits that last a lifetime.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend more than seven hours a day entertaining themselves with screens. That’s just time spent watching TV, playing video games or browsing the web — not the educational hours spent at school or on homework.

Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on screen time: None through infancy, less than an hour until kindergarten and no more than two hours in the school-age years. The 2012 NHANES National Youth Fitness Survey found that children who exceeded the screen time guidelines were nearly 70 percent more likely to become overweight or obese.

5. Prioritize a good night’s sleep.

Sleep is another factor in childhood obesity. Kids who don’t get enough of it are more likely to become obese. A lack of sleep leads to daytime drowsiness that makes kids less active. It can disrupt the hormones that control appetite, making them feel hungrier and eat more in the waking hours.

Make sure your screen time limits have restrictions close to bedtime to help your kids get better rest. Set their bedtimes early enough to ensure that they get the right amount of sleep for their age:

  • 11 hours a night for children five and under
  • At least 10 hours for kids ages five to 10
  • A minimum of 9 hours for children 10 and up

The definition of obesity is not the same for children and adults.

Healthy habits apply to all ages, but obesity does not have a universal metric. Adults are measured by BMI. A number greater than 30 classifies you as obese.

Children are still growing, and they do so in spurts. Since kids develop on their own timelines, they’re measured differently. Instead of a specific BMI target, children are measured against their peers.

BMI Chart for Kids

Percentile

Weight Classification

< 5th

Underweight

5th – 84.9th

Normal weight

85th – 94.9th

Overweight

> 95th

Obese

This chart only applies to kids from age two through their teens. Chubby babies are not obese. Their wrinkles and rolls should be cause for coos, not concern.

You shouldn’t worry about weight unless your pediatrician points it out. They monitor your child’s weight at each appointment. You’ve probably gotten a chart that outlines their weight, height and BMI and the percentiles they fall into.

You can also run the numbers on your own. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a BMI calculator for children and teens as well as growth charts by age so you can better compare your child to the national averages. If you see their habits and weight trending in the wrong direction, schedule a visit with your pediatrician to check your child’s health and develop a plan to combat obesity.

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