Children and teenagers are making multiple decisions several times a day that have the potential to define the quality of their health for the rest of their lives. I'm not referring to risky behaviors that scare the daylights out of parents — which most kids grow out of. The choices that will have the most lasting impact on our kids in terms of their overall health and wellbeing is what they eat, and how often they move their bodies.
Good nutrition and daily exercise sound like a simple recipe for health — we instinctively know this. Yet, it is so often ignored or misunderstood that our country is now in the midst of an alarming epidemic of overweight children and adolescents who are already showing signs of diseases that were once confined to the middle-aged and older.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Today, more than one third of children and teens are overweight or obese, and 70 percent of them have risk factors for cardiovascular disease and pre-diabetes. Just as alarming, the statistics indicate that overweight children and adolescents are destined to be overweight adults.
None of us want this for our children and their futures. Yet, helping them get back on track when it comes to good nutrition and exercise can be complicated. When a primary care physician refers an overweight child to a healthcare professional like me, we often find that the entire family is in need of help. We start with the basics on nutrition with lots of education about reading labels, buying food as close to its natural state as possible, and even how to prepare it so that meals are both nutritious and tasty. We discuss the value of eating as a family, and strategies such as using fresh fruit rather than cookies as an incentive or reward for good behavior.
In the process, we gradually improve what's happening with the whole family and not just the individual child. The outcome has a much greater and lasting impact on nutrition and other lifestyle choices. In essence, the health of the child became the "carrot" that encouraged parents to make real changes in the health and future of their family.
I understand that preparing vegetables and fruit is more time-consuming than fast food or processed dessert items. But in years of practice, I've found that it's the rare child who will turn down a bowl of fresh fruit with a dollop of cream, or a platter of fresh veggies with a tasty dip. Just as important is developing a routine in your home of sitting together at the table and enjoying a meal as a family. Even better, encourage your children to help in the preparation so that they learn how to make good food. It is the small things that you do in a habitual way that will have the greatest benefits over time.
Activity goes hand-in-hand with good nutrition and health, and in some ways, bad habits around exercise may be harder to change than improving nutrition. Too many of our children lead sedentary lives, tied to computers and other devices that have robbed them of the extraordinary opportunity to just go outside and play. And with working parents and less supervision at home, kids don't have the outside activities that my generation enjoyed. Some families literally have to schedule time for their youngsters to have physical activity. Whatever your strategy, it is absolutely critical that children stay in motion. In fact, we all need to move every day, regardless of age.
We all want the best for our kids and it doesn't include high blood pressure or pre-diabetes at age 15, or ever. Life-long good health is rarely just good luck. It's a gift that comes from parents who focus on nutrition and exercise.
Peter Gazzillo, MBA, RD, LDN, CPT, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian who holds an MBA with a concentration in healthcare, a degree in Dietetics, and is an IFPA Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Sports Nutritionist. He is the Program Director of Berkshire Medical Center's Operation Better Start, Western Mass Growth and Nutrition Program and Berkshire North WIC.