Establishing healthy eating habits in tweens and teens

Eating habits are established very early in life, which I discussed in last week’s PediaPath blog where I offered ideas to help avoid childhood obesity. If you have an older child or teenager and you have concerns about their eating habits and obesity, you’re facing a different challenge. Unlike a baby who is creating habits, you have a child with established habits that likely need to be examined more closely. The good news is that these habits can be changed with time and patience.

Signs of obesity risk

It probably goes without saying that the main symptom of obesity is increased weight, particularly around your child’s midsection – the most common area on the body to see gains. Risk factors include sleep problems, lack of exercise and a high level of sedentary activities like watching TV, playing on the computer or playing video games. Family history of obesity also puts the child at higher risk.

Taking action against obesity

If you suspect your child is on the path toward obesity or is obese, there are steps that can be taken over time. To begin the process, you need to evaluate three areas:

1. The kind of food your child is eating

2. The amount of food your child is eating

3. The number of calories your child is both consuming and burning through exercise on a daily basis.

Kind and amount of food

If your child is eating primarily foods high in calories, fat or sugar, then the kinds of food and the amounts of food they are eating are likely factors in their development of obesity.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), your child needs to be consuming a healthy balance of fruits and vegetables, protein, grains and dairy every day. You can learn more specifics on the needs of your child based on gender and age by looking online at the USDA’s “Choose My Plate” initiative.

For parents, the challenge to deliver your child’s nutritional needs often comes down to the daunting task of planning three healthy meals every day. But it can be done. As a mother and a pediatrician, there are some tricks I’ve learned over the years.

First, just because it’s fast food doesn’t mean it’s junk food. There are numerous, fully prepared, frozen meals on the market that can be purchased at stores, such as Trader Joe’s. They can be just as cost-effective, fast, tasty and even more nutritious than food purchased at drive-thru restaurants.

Second, it does not need to be overly complicated or time-consuming to be healthy. I remember numerous occasions arriving home after work not knowing what I was going to prepare and rummaging through my kitchen to come up with something fast, healthy and appealing for the entire family. I generally found that with a little creativity I had everything for a well-rounded meal. For instance, I might defrost and bake chicken breasts and prepare frozen broccoli and rice. Or I might prepare a simple salad and pasta topped with jarred tomato sauce made with frozen turkey sausage.

Calorie consumption and burn

Is your child “very active,” “somewhat active” or “not active?” The answer to that question will dictate how many calories they should be consuming per day. The U.S. Department of Health& Human Services provides simple instructions on how to determine your child’s activity level. Armed with that information, you can establish the number of calories they should be consuming daily through the department’s “we can!” initiative dedicated to enhancing children’s activity and nutrition.

What to expect and common pitfalls

As I’ve outlined this method to my patients over the years, I’ve sometimes seen two pitfalls that undermine the success of getting their child off of the obesity track. First, they attempt to make changes in all three areas at the same time. For optimal success, you must approach this process in baby steps.

After you’ve done your initial evaluation, select one area to make changes and make them small, adding a little at a time. For instance, if you determine the kind of food your child is eating is where you want to start, select a small thing. Your child might eat a sandwich with mayonnaise every day for lunch. Change the mayonnaise to ketchup or mustard.  When your child sees that making that change was achievable after a few days, add another small adjustment. Monitor the impact these changes are having on your child’s weight over time and encourage them to take pride in their accomplishments. This will build their confidence and self-esteem.

The second pitfall has to do with accountability. Ideally, your child should not be accountable to a parent, but to an outside party, such as a family friend, coach, teacher, church leader or pediatrician. Have your child check in with this person to assess their progress on a month-to-month basis. Establishing accountability outside the immediate family alleviates pressure that might be felt if they’re accountable to a person they see every day. It gives them time and space to find their way toward success.

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