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Food for Thought Food for Thought

Obesity: How Can We Help Our Kids?

October 23, 2014

By Caitlin Hosmer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Our kids need help! These frightening statistics come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • The number of overweight children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years.
  • The number of overweight adolescents ages 12 to 19 more than tripled in the past 20 years.
  • More than 50% of overweight young people have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
  • Overweight children are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
  • Overweight young people are more likely than children of normal weight to become overweight or obese as adults, and therefore are more at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain cancers, and osteoarthritis.

Changes in our environment, food supply and our culture are pushing kids toward obesity: they're less active, eat more and consume more empty-calorie foods. What can we do as individuals in our own homes, to help our kids form healthy bodies and healthy relationships with food?

1. Eliminate trans fatty acids. Trans fats are a clever invention of the food industry to increase the shelf life of many foods including baked goods, packaged snacks, and crackers. But they're getting a lot of well-deserved bad press. A paper in the April 13, 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine brings to light the long-term damaging effects of regular trans fat consumption. Adding to over a decade of scientific studies, this analysis found that eating less than 5 grams of trans fats per day was associated with a 30% increased risk for heart disease compared to eating 2 grams of trans fats (An average serving of French fries has an estimated 5 to 6 grams of trans fats).

There is some good news. The authors estimate that almost 20% (228,000 events) of coronary heart disease events in this country could be prevented every year by eliminating trans fats and replacing them with nonhydrogenated, unsaturated fats. So start reading the nutrition labels, which must now list grams of trans fatty acids. Pick those with "0" grams and avoid any product that has "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oil in the list of ingredients. (Some labels will say "0" grams of trans fats but still have a small amount in the ingredients, because of the labeling laws). Start cooking with olive or canola oils.

2. Limit all kinds of sweet drinks. It seems like miles of grocery store shelves are devoted to sweet drinks. But it's not just the carbonated ones that we need cut back on. In a recent public announcement, several large soft drink manufacturers voluntarily pledged to remove these drinks from schools. This is an important step but don't forget that non-carbonated sweet drinks, including energy and fruit drinks, are loaded with sugar and low on nutrients. (To calculate the number of teaspoons of sugar in a drink, divide the number of sugar grams per serving listed on the label by four. Prepare to be surprised!) Consumers have gotten the message from recent research that soda is indeed linked to weight gain. But for the sake of our children's health, we need to realize that too much of any sweet drink, regardless of carbonation, is harmful. Even too much juice, which may have more nutrients, isn't okay.

3.Watch portions - even little kids can eat too much. Research from Penn State found that when presented with lots of food, a three-year old won't necessarily eat a lot. But a five year old will overeat when given lots of food. This suggests that children may lose their ability to self-regulate portion sizes according to hunger at a fairly young age. Modest portion sizes are likely a factor in keeping kids at a healthy weight. When restaurant or take-out portions are super-sized, share or leave some for later.

4.Make it an experience. You can make eating a positive and nourishing experience by paying attention to how mealtime is approached. Children who eat meals as a family consume less soda and fewer high-fat snacks, eat more fruit and vegetables, and eat a larger variety of foods than when they eat alone. There's also some evidence that when meals are eaten in a peaceful rather than a stressful state, digestion is improved. Time spent as a family around the dinner table encourages conversation and opportunities for adults to model habits including how to communicate, good listening skills and good eating habits.

5. Less screen, more green. A study from Stanford demonstrated that less time spent watching television, videos and video games resulted in significant weight loss among third and fourth graders in California. This isn't the first study to link obesity with television viewing. It's been estimated that for every additional hour of television that adolescents watch each week above the average, obesity rises about two percent. To avoid this, follow the recommendation to limit children to no more than two hours of "screen time" (TV, video games, computers) a day.

6. Work with your schools to initiate healthy changes. Despite some success in decreasing the availability of soda in schools, sweet drinks and high-calorie snacks are still much too available. For those able to put time and effort into changing the system, here are some nutrition resources schools can use to improve awareness about good nutrition.

  • Planet Health developed by the Harvard Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity
  • Food is Elementary - a food and nutrition curriculum available through The Food Studies Institute
  • High Five! curriculum and other teaching tools available from Oldways Preservation Trust
  • Rethinking School Lunch Guide and other guidelines available from the Center for Ecoliteracy

For more step-by-step guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a section on their website called Healthy Youth!. It includes the School Health Index, a tool to help assess a school's strengths and weaknesses in health policies and programs and develop a plan to make improvements.

While our "food environment" seems to have gotten unhealthier over time, with enough energy working in the right direction perhaps we can reverse this costly trend. Our children are precious to us and a precious resource to the world.

Caitlin Hosmer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is the manager of the Nutrition Consultation Service at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Caitlin earned a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from Cornell University. She completed her dietetic internship at Frances Stern Nutrition Center and New England Medical Center, and received a master's degree in nutrition at Tufts University.

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