Scale Shock: Why Are Our Kids Gaining So Much Weight?
Experts agree that the shift in kids’ weight is a complex issue that is troubling, and not just on the scale. Metabolic health risk applies to all children, no matter what their weight. Nevertheless, like adults, kids who carry extra weight are at risk for a variety of serious health issues, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
This raises two not-so-simple questions: Why are so many kids in poor metabolic health? And what can we do about it?
Too much on our plates
America hit a major milestone in 2014. That was the first year that spending at restaurants was more than spending at grocery stores. Even if you avoid fast food, your meals out are far more likely to be overloaded with sodium and refined (low-fiber) calories than a home-cooked meal.
Adding to the problem is that the foods we do pick up at the grocery store, beyond the produce section, are often far from the healthiest choices.
According to a 2016 study based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, almost two-thirds of Americans’ daily calories come from ultra-processed food, which includes fake flavors, sweeteners and additives, while only 1 percent of their daily calories come from vegetables.
“The calorie density of foods has gone up with processing, so even if we eat the same amount of food as decades past, we would be eating more calories and less fiber,” says Dr. Tom Rifai, regional medical director of Metabolic Health and Weight Management, Henry Ford Health System.
“Our portion sizes are increasing. It’s the perfect storm for pushing a lot of refined calories and salt.”
Unlearning unhealthy eating habits begins with change in the kitchen and at dining tables, and with positive conversations about food. “I encourage parents to start talking about healthy food in a way that focuses on overall health, without demonizing less healthy food,” says Dr. Kate Williamson, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Ask them, ‘What healthy foods did you eat today?’ You have to try to get kids to have a mindset about what is healthy and what is a treat.”
It’s all about activity
Calories in – that’s one fundamental affecting kids and weight. Another? Calories out. The unhealthy combination of the two is now seen in younger people in ways that alarm experts. “It used to be an adult issue. Then it was a teenage issue. Now we’re seeing kids as young as toddler age with weight issues,” says Dr. Williamson. “From a purely physiological standpoint, the development of fat cells starts at a young age.”
And while Dr. Rifai worries about the hours spent with video games and social media, he is equally concerned about the rise in organized activities for kids. “We have kids pushed to perform in schools and sports, which creates stress and disrupts sleep, which in turn increases appetite and reaching to (frequently junk) food for comfort.”
What you can do
Parents must lead the way and take a slow, manageable approach to reframing kids’ well-being, says Dr. Rifai. For example, add one more piece of fruit each day. Walk when you could drive. Savor sweet and salty treats as “the garnish” on life, not the main course.
Kicking, or at least reducing, the screen habit is a worthwhile whole-family goal, adds Dr. Williamson. “You have to get screen time down for everybody,” she says. “Try strategies such as at a certain time of night, all electronics go to bed.”
Parents seem to be getting the messages, including those around health and nutrition. Dr. Williamson has already seen the change in families in her office. “Five years ago, I’d see toddlers with juice in their bottles. Now I rarely have to tell parents to limit sodas or juice,” she says. “We are seeing so many more parents being knowledgeable about things that make them healthy. It’s not going to happen tomorrow or next week. It is one step at a time.”
Check out our infographic in related post: Kid-friendly Foods that are Masquerading as Healthy.