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Four Ways Families Can Prevent Childhood Obesity

November 2022

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

About 1 in 5 American children have obesity. Compared to children with healthy weight, children with overweight or obesity are at a higher risk for asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Though there is not a single solution to addressing obesity, here are ways parents and caregivers can help children have a healthy weight and set up lifelong healthy habits at home.

First, parents need to model a healthy eating pattern with a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein foods, and low-fat (1%) and fat-free dairy products. Replace sugary drinks, such as soda, fruit drinks, and flavored milk, with water, diluted 100% juice, or plain low-fat (1%) milk. Help your children get the nutrients they need by making half their plate fruits and vegetables. Help kids rethink their drink by replacing those sugary drinks with water, 100% juice, or plain low-fat milk.

Physically active youth have stronger muscles and bones, better cardiovascular fitness, and lower body fat than those who are inactive. Children aged 3–5 years should be physically active throughout the day. Children aged 6–17 years need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. The family needs to be a role model for walking and a healthy lifestyle with plenty of activities such as walking, doing garden or yard work, participating in sports such as tennis, pickleball, basketball, swimming, biking, or using a local park play areas as ways to get physical activity in every day or as much as possible. Family walking together provides time for parents and kids to converse without smart phones or iPods. Getting away from technology each day is important to reduce stress and allow for communication between adults, children, and teens. Kids can help by walking the family pet before and after school, riding bikes together, or have races in the yard. Active chores, such as washing the car, vacuuming a room, or raking leaves, also count. Help your children move more and meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by making it a family affair.

Families need to set routines for everyone in the household. Especially important are consistent sleep routines. Good sleep helps to prevent type 2 diabetes, obesity, injuries, and problems with attention and behavior. Preschoolers need 11–13 hours of sleep per day, including naps. Children 6–12 years old need 9–12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, and youth 13–18 need 8–10 hours. Adults need 6 or more hours of sleep each day. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, including on weekends, can help children sleep better.

Everyone is too sedentary due to technology and TV. Replace screen time with family time. In young people, too much screen time can lead to poor sleep, weight gain, lower grades in school, and poor mental health. Reducing screen time can free up time for family activities and can remove cues to eat unhealthy food. Turning screens off an hour before bed and removing screens from children's bedrooms can help reduce screen time and improve sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends creating a family media plan with examples of how to reduce screen time. Remember, childhood obesity is a complex disease with many contributing factors, including genetics, eating patterns, physical activity levels, and sleep routines. Conditions where we live, learn, work, and play can make healthy eating and getting enough physical activity difficult if these conditions do not support health.