Health Matters | Fight off obesity as a family

Lisa_ThorntonThe other day I was at a high school varsity basketball game. A pep squad of 10 girls dancing to some upbeat music provided the halftime entertainment.

They were all talented dancers and their routine was entertaining, but I noticed something else about this group of girls: five of the 10 were definitely overweight and three of those five were obese. I was really surprised. These girls are active and athletic.

It was a graphic reminder of how our kids are steadily becoming chubbier and chubbier right before our eyes.

The expanding girth of our children has been slow but consistent over the past several years-so slow that some parents may not even notice-but take a look around the next time you’re dropping your kids off at school or shopping at the mall. Kids may not look obese, but notice how their tummies hang over their waistbands. This little bit of pudge is a fairly new phenomenon. Twenty years ago, preteens and teens were lean. Body fat was typically low. Children who were overweight were unusual. But today, we barely take a second look at a 12-year-old with love handles.

This is a problem and it isn’t because of appearance. It’s because of health. Sixteen to 33 percent of children today are overweight or obese. Teens whose BMI (body mass index, the gold standard for measuring obesity) is in the overweight range at age 13 are very likely to struggle with weight in adulthood. In fact, eight out of 10 overweight teens will be obese at age 25.

Problems with weight

Many health problems are associated with obesity in adulthood and those same issues can affect children, too. In my practice, I have seen several children with extreme obesity, some who weigh 350-400 pounds, and all of them have suffered adult-type health challenges as a result. They have high blood pressure and diabetes, and the bones in their legs bend under their extreme weight so that surgery is required to straighten them back out.

I’ve seen a 105-pound 4-year-old with sleep apnea who developed a heart problem as a result. I’ve seen kids who have a hard time walking around the block and kids whose self-esteem suffers because of their obesity. It’s tragic. And what’s really sad is that they all want to lose weight, but when they consider what it would take to lose more than 100 pounds, they just get discouraged. It seems impossible. It’s not impossible, but it is very, very difficult.

Fortunately, most kids aren’t as overweight as the patients I see, but they do have enough excess weight to cause health problems now or put them at high risk in the future.

Consider this: The most motivated adults have a hard time losing weight even though they control what food comes into their house or whether they eat fast food or exercise regularly. Kids’ diets and activity are mostly controlled by their parents, their school and the availability of free or organized play available in their neighborhood. Most don’t know about reading labels or calorie counting, and there aren’t many opportunities for them to learn these things.

It’s really up to parents and that’s not meant as an accusation or a guilt trip. Life moves fast these days and high-calorie, low-nutrition convenience foods can feel like the only option. Parents are being asked to figure out how to squeeze in healthy meals between after-school activities, day care pickup, homework and a healthy bedtime.

What you can do

Here are some tips to help your children achieve and maintain a healthy weight:

  • Encourage your children to develop a healthy body image. Use language that does not judge their body, but instead promotes the positives: What makes their body feel good? Which of their features do they love the most? What’s the most fun they can have with their body (dancing, rolling around on the grass, playing violin or writing poetry)? Don’t focus on your child’s weight but instead on helping your child feel good, strong, healthy and energetic.
  • Discourage your children from comparing themselves to a body ideal presented in the media. Many celebrities have openly commented on how much their photos are modified and enhanced by computerized tweaking.
  • Limit screen time. It’s fine in moderation, but this should be one part of a long list of entertainment possibilities.
  • Move and play with your kids. When everyone in the family gets in the game, children learn that movement is a great way to bond and have fun. Activities don’t have to be organized. Just running around the house or the yard for a good game of tag sends a healthy message.
  • Involve your kids in meal preparation to teach them about portion control and making healthy food selections.
  • Have meals together as much as possible. In our home, we’ve found that when we eat together, our children talk more. We can also see how much our kids are eating and encourage them to slow down and notice when their body is full.
  • Don’t use food as a reward or punishment and definitely don’t insist that kids clean their plates. When they’re full, they should push their plate away.
  • Allow snacks and desserts in moderation. This teaches kids that treats aren’t bad or good. They’re treats and should be eaten in small amounts and fully enjoyed.

One of the most encouraging things about helping kids achieve a healthy weight is that they are still growing and often don’t need to lose, but rather maintain the weight they are as they “grow into it.”

The childhood obesity epidemic is going to be slowed down one family at a time. We are our children’s best role models and as we help our children develop healthier habits, we may even find ourselves getting healthier. That’s what I call a great side effect.

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at

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