Reducing the rates of childhood obesity will not be easy. More than one-third of children and adolescents in the United States were overweight or obese in 2012. The good news is that childhood obesity is preventable and treatable.
At MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC), we have launched several research-based initiatives to change the future of childhood obesity and are beginning another that will involve women who are pregnant and their partners.
The attention on childhood obesity is well placed. Over the long term, obesity can set children up for a lifetime of dealing with diabetes or heart disease. And in the short term, obesity can affect a child’s health and emotions.
Over the long term, obesity can set children up for a lifetime of dealing with diabetes or heart disease.
Children who are overweight may have “silent” symptoms of depression and may be teased and bullied. The stress related to these symptoms is something they carry with them in their everyday lives.
Tackling the childhood obesity epidemic must be a partnership with families, communities, schools and healthcare providers. One such program is STAR (Study of Technology to Accelerate Research), an MGHfC partnership with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, the Department of Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute.
Families of 6 to 12 year olds received tips for preventing and managing obesity through educational materials, face-to-face sessions and text messages. Our study results suggest there are ways to improve the quality of care for children with obesity and help them achieve better outcomes. These include providing family support for lifestyle changes and making it easy for clinicians to access the latest treatment guidelines using health information technology.
Here are some guidelines based on evidence-based research. Consider trying them with your family and finding what works best for your children.
Children ages 6 to 12 should sleep 10 to 11 hours per night.
When the body gets the right amount of sleep, the brain helps us to control hunger and achieve a healthy weight. Better quality and longer sleep are also associated with better school performance.
What parents can do:
- Establish a bedtime routine. Many parents like the three “B’s routine: bath, book and then bed.”
- Use the same bedtime routine each night.
- Turn off the television one hour before bedtime to make the transition easier. Keep televisions and other electronic screen devices out of your child’s bedroom.
- Make the bedroom comfortable. Use a nightlight, if needed, dark curtains and keep it cool and quiet. Cozy blankets and pillows as well as soft music can help.
- Do not give your child caffeinated or sugary drinks, which can interfere with sleep.
Children need at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.
Exercise is important because it keeps kids’ hearts healthy and helps manage weight. Exercise can be anything that gets kids moving.
In the short term, obesity can affect a child’s health and emotions.
What parents can do:
- Limit TV and other screen time. (Ideally, no more than two hours per day, not including homework time on a computer).
- Talk to your children about what they like to do and find sports teams, dance or exercise classes. Or identify ways to exercise at home, try walks or hiking in your neighborhood and consider purchasing technology and apps with physical activity programs.
- If 60 minutes per day seems like a lot, help your child work up to that goal.
Children should avoid sugary drinks. Chose water as your child’s daily beverage.
Regularly drinking soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit juice may cause excessive weight gain and cavities.
What parents can do:
- Always offer water or lowfat milk with meals and snacks. Begin by setting certain days for just water or lowfat milk at meals. Then, gradually add to the number of days per week.
- Let your child pick out a fun, reusable water bottle to take to school, sports practices— everywhere they go.
- Be a health role model for your child and avoid sugary drinks, too.
- Make water fun by adding color and texture to a pitcher or glass with straws, ice, lemon or orange slices.
- Talk with your children about the choices they make at school and afterschool. Find out what types of drinks are available in the cafeteria and in school vending machines.
For more information about how you can support Dr. Taveras’s work please contact us.