If we could help our children lead longer, healthier lives, wouldn’t we??? For parents, the answer is a resounding ‘YES‘. As a society, the answer seems to be a tragic ‘NO.’
The statistics are grim – Our children will be the first generation with a shorter life span than their parents. Most of this is due to children not eating healthy, not exercising enough, and many being overweight.
One recent study estimated only 1% of children in the U.S. met all recommendations of the USDA food pyramid for children. As parents we may want to change things. But we are fighting a culture that practically forces unhealthy food in our children’s mouths.
How do we as parents fight society’s pressure and help our children eat healthy or establish healthy eating habits, maintain a healthy weight and get sufficient exercise?
Parents Have the Power
The good news is – parents play a critical role in encouraging a healthy lifestyle. One interesting study showed that educating parents in nutrition was more effective in influencing teens’ weight loss than educating the teens themselves!
We have the power! The following are some things we can do to help our children become/stay healthy:
Model healthy behavior – Let your children see you exercise, eat healthy, and appreciate your body. Studies show children are far more likely to be active if their parents are active. Learn about nutrition as a family. Show your children that breakfast is important by eating a healthy breakfast yourself – sorry, sugar-laden cereals and donuts don‘t count. Eat sweets in moderation: not overindulging and not totally depriving. Focus on maintaining the healthiest body you can, not on unrealistic ideal bodies. Your children won’t believe they are beautiful just the way they are if you don’t believe it about yourself.
Make small changes – Change can be really hard! Trying to change everything at once rarely lasts. Call a family meeting to decide on a reasonable goal, such as replacing a half-hour of TV three times per week with physical activity. Once that is in place, add another goal like replacing soda with water or diluted 100% fruit juice, or decreasing fast food meals. And so on. Small changes are much easier to incorporate as life long habits and are less likely to meet resistance. Small successes will encourage further change.
Develop healthy habits – The earlier healthy habits are established, the easier and more likely they are to remain habits of a lifetime. Children’s tastes are shaped by foods offered. Offer them healthy, not sugary, fat-0laden foods. If they initially say ‘no’ to an unhealthy treat, let that answer stand – children don’t need to eat cake just because everyone else is. Encourage grandparents and friends to accept this. We are not doing our children any favors when we promote sweet foods, large portions, or sedentary life style.
Give choices – Reasonable choices give children needed power, , and teach decision-making skills. Let two-year olds choose dessert: not an open-ended ‘What would you like for dessert?’ but a more specific ‘Would you like an apple or banana for dessert?’. When dessert is something healthy, the ‘necessity’ of finishing one’s meal before dessert stops being an issue. Grade school children can help with shopping by choosing between healthy options. They can dish up their own servings and decide when they are full. Studies show children who choose their own portion size eat less. Serve younger children appropriately small servings and let them ask for more if still hungry.
Family support – Sometimes only one child in the family is overweight. Regardless, the entire family needs to be involved in life-style change. It is almost impossible for a child to change if the environment does not change. Since healthy change will benefit your entire family, it is not ‘unfair’ to anyone.
Dieting – Many experts agree that putting children on a diet is not healthy and certainly should never be done without the guidance of a pediatrician or nutritionist. Dieting puts proper nutrition at risk. Decreasing junk food, fat and sugar, and increasing exercise is often the best way to obtain a healthy weight.
Turn off the TV (computer, DVD) – Advertising (including most kids shows!!!) is designed to get children to pester parents for products – sugary cereals, candy, toys. We are setting ourselves up for unnecessary battles when we allow a lot of TV. And, research shows more screen time increases the likelihood of children being overweight, with yet an even greater risk if a screen is in a child’s bedroom. Substitute another activity – even reading uses more calories. And reading together is a great family activity.
Sleep – Research shows children who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight – not to mention crabby. A set routine and bedtime help ensure children get enough sleep. Choices such as ‘Which pajamas?’ or ‘Do you want to go to bed now or in 5 minutes?’ may help.
Exercise – Young children are built for action. Their brains are loaded with pleasure receptors for physical activity. But we often structure their world to be inactive. Our job is to provide opportunities for physical activity, be supportive not critical, and help our children find activities they enjoy.
Stress – contributes to weight gain. Exercise or listening to music are ways to deal with stress that don‘t involve eating.
Family meals – Studies show children who regularly ate at home with their family had the healthiest diets. (Studies show family meals also increase language skills, boost grades, and result in children who are better adjusted in general.) Having regular mealtimes makes it easier for children to maintain normal hunger cues.
We, as parents, construct our children’s environment – especially when they are young. We have the power to make that environment a healthy one and teach healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
choosemyplate.gov – revised food plate for children
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