According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity now affects one in six American children and adolescents. It’s not just America; childhood obesity has become a worldwide epidemic.
“Shocking figures show there are now 124 million obese children worldwide,” reported The Guardian in 2017. The review, based on 200 countries, found the number of obese children rose from less than one percent in 1975 to 5.6 percent of girls and 7.8 percent of boys in 2016.
How Unhealthy Eating and Obesity Affects Children
The consequences of childhood obesity are destructive and far-reaching. They include adverse social and emotional well-being, low self-esteem, poor academic performance, lower quality of life, as well as numerous metabolic, cardiovascular, orthopedic, neurological, hepatic, pulmonary, and renal disorders.
Unfortunately, unhealthy kids oftentimes become unhealthy adults. The CDC reports more than 100 million American adults now have diabetes or prediabetes, and researchers predict these and other disease statistics will only increase over the coming decades.
The Causes of Childhood Obesity
Why is childhood obesity so high and increasing? Researchers sometimes attribute easy answers – too little exercise, too much junk food – to complex and multifactorial problems.
Numerous factors usually contribute to childhood obesity. Among them include environmental factors, increased caloric intake, excessive sugar intake (especially in soft drinks), increased portion sizes, and too little physical activity.
Children are especially susceptible to junk-food pushing. Manufacturers intensely target youth as consumers because of their spending power, purchasing influence, and to create lifelong consumers.
“Multiple techniques and channels are used to reach youth, beginning when they are toddlers, to foster brand-building and influence food product purchase behavior,” say Mary Story and Simone French. “These food marketing channels include television advertising, in-school marketing, product placements, kids clubs, the Internet, toys and products with brand logos, and youth-targeted promotions, such as cross-selling and tie-ins.”
When it comes to nutrition and childhood obesity, over-consumption becomes a problem. According to Mark Hyman, MD, in his book Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?, kids consume up to 35 teaspoons daily. At the same time, what young people aren’t doing is an issue as well, such as eating enough whole, unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods. (Worth mentioning: Hyman wrote the forward to Dr. B.J. Hardick’s book Align Your Health.)
Tops among them include fruits and especially vegetables. “Eat your veggies” has become a mantra – sometimes a demand; sometimes followed by a bribe – at many dinner tables as kids and teenagers wince at the Brussels sprouts on the side of their plate.
Teaching Your Kids Healthy Diets
But children – and everyone, for that matter – needs to eat their veggies. Researchers associate higher vegetable intake with lower risks for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, several cancers, and obesity.
Unfortunately, most kids consume fewer than the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. In fact, one study showed fewer than 15 percent of children between four and eight consume the recommended levels of fruit and vegetables.
One solution is to expose children to these foods at a very young age. Researchers find when kids are exposed to vegetables before they turn two, they eat more (and enjoy more) vegetables later in life.
You’ve got plenty of ways to do this and raise healthy kids. Healthy lunches for kids might include Romaine lettuce in their gluten-free wrap, broccoli and other vegetables with hummus, and an organic apple.
Ditto for healthy snacks: An organic banana with no-sugar-added almond butter or frozen berries in unsweetened coconut yogurt become a great way to boost your kid’s health while satisfying their sweet tooth. You can find plenty of healthy recipes that “hide” vegetables. Better yet, find healthy recipes for vegetables that taste good and earn raves. Most children enjoy, say, sautéed spinach in olive oil and garlic, or shaved Brussels sprouts with nitrate-free bacon, or bacon and cheese stuffed mushrooms.
Vegetables are the clear nutrient-rich winner among plant foods, but fruit tends to be more palatable because they’re sweeter. Additionally, researchers find children who eat whole fruit make better overall food choices.
Education plus experience becomes a great way to create healthy kids. Researchers in one study exposed 59 kindergarten students at two schools to interactive activities about healthy eating and physical activity. One of those schools also exposed kindergarteners to a variety of fruits and vegetables.
While all the children could better identify a range of fruit after the experiment, only those who received exposure to healthful foods were more willing to try fruit after the program.
Another study looked at how eight days of home exposure to healthy foods and eating behaviors though children’s books and a variety of fruit and vegetables impacted fruit and vegetable consumption among 59 four-to-eight-year-olds. Fruit was the winner; the kids didn’t give vegetables much love. They ate more fruit if their mothers didn’t pressure them. They were also more likely to try a new fruit or vegetable after those eight days.
Despite these and other strategies, some researchers seem baffled about kids health and how to get young people to eat more fruits and vegetables. “Despite identifying 50 eligible trials of various intervention approaches, the evidence for how to increase fruit and vegetable consumption of children remains sparse,” researchers in one review dismally concluded.
You have more power than you might imagine when you serve as the example you want your kids to model.
Research shows parents can heavily impact the amount of fruits and vegetables their kids and adolescents eat. Make them delicious and eat them yourself, and your children will more likely become vegetable-loving adults.
Another great skill you can teach your children and adolescents is how to cook. “Cooking real food is a revolutionary act,” says Hyman. “We currently raise the second generation of Americans who don’t know how to cook. The average child in America doesn’t know how to identify even the most basic vegetables and fruit; our kids don’t know where their food comes from or even that it grows on a farm.”
Cooking meals doesn’t need to become elaborate or time-consuming. You can find healthy, child-friendly recipes online or in cookbooks that take under 30 minutes to prepare. You might teach your adolescents three of your favorite dishes they can master and whip up on their own. (One day, they will have a friend or significant other who will thank you!)
These healthy recipes, healthy lunches, and healthy snacks for kids needn’t be expensive. Eating healthy on a budget is entirely possible for even the most financially challenged family. After all, sugary, processed foods and drinks are among the highest markups at grocery stores, and some states enforce additional taxes on these items.
Eating healthy on a budget becomes easy when you:
- Shop local, seasonal produce (it usually costs less and contains more nutrients)
- Buy what’s on sale that week
- Focus more of your meals on plant foods including non-starchy vegetables and legumes, which cost less than grass-fed meats and wild-caught seafood
- Eat at home more often
How to Teach Your Kids Healthy Eating Habits
The idea that eating healthy is expensive, time-consuming, or unappealing has become an unfortunate myth. Getting your picky eight-year-old or too-cool-for-dinner adolescent to make healthier choices can feel like a massive mountain to climb, but the results will pay off. These 13 strategies can make raising healthy kids easier so they become healthy adults.
1. Build healthier habits early.
Researchers find children learn eating behaviors through social learning with parents, peers, and siblings influencing those food preferences. Studies also show healthy habits they develop during childhood carry into adolescence and adulthood. No matter what their age, you can boost your kids health and install healthier values starting at the very next meal. Constant exposure to healthier foods and patience become key here.
2. Upgrade their favorites.
With a little creativity, you can make pretty much any kid-favorite meal into a healthy recipe. Here are a few meal ideas:
- Instead of pasta, try spaghetti squash with fresh marinara sauce
- Instead of burgers and fries, have sliders on lettuce wraps with homemade sweet potato fries
- Instead of chicken fingers with BBQ sauce, try almond-flour chicken fingers with spicy mustard.
You can create healthy meal ideas with nearly any of your kid’s favorites, including healthy snacks and dessert: Try frozen blueberries in unsweetened coconut yogurt or no-sugar-added coconut ice cream.
3. Nix the sugary breakfast foods.
Eating a sugary breakfast becomes a surefire strategy for late-morning brain fog, energy crashes, and hunger. Skip the carbs for a breakfast high in protein and healthy fats. “In one oft-quoted study, overweight children were fed one of three breakfasts: instant oatmeal, steel-cut oats, or omelets, all of which had the same number of calories,” says Hyman. “Compared to the omelet group, the kids who ate the oatmeal had higher levels of insulin, sugar, adrenaline, and cortisol (which suggests that the body perceives oatmeal as a stressor). The lesson? Even ‘healthy’ cereal will increase your food cravings more than protein and fats.” If breakfast feels like a herculean chore at your house, try a protein smoothie with healthy fats including unsweetened coconut milk, avocado, and almond butter.
4. Ditch the soda and juice for tea or flavored water.
Sugar-sweetened soda doesn’t just increase your child’s risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes; researchers also find higher rates of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) among child and adolescent soda drinkers, likely because of the increased fructose intake as high-fructose corn syrup. Orange juice and other fruit juices (even the 100 percent natural ones) aren’t any better. They can have as much sugar as a soda. “Juice contains all the sugar of fruit with none of the fiber that slows its absorption in your body,” says Hyman. “You wouldn’t eat five apples at once, but you can easily drink them.” Swap the soda and fruit juice for lemon-infused water or freshly brewed iced green tea sweetened with organic stevia.
5. Make it cool to eat healthy.
Children today are becoming more health-conscious, making the idea of healthy kids a reality for the next generations. To be lean and healthy, have great energy, and feel confident are traits almost every child or adolescent wants. Send kids the same message about sugary processed foods as we have cigarettes: It’s not hip or cool to eat junk foods that make your body tired, sick, and contribute to childhood obesity. Even if they become exposed to these foods with friends or extended family, you can have significant impact being a stellar role model for healthy eating.
6. Go deeper.
Many children get food exposure through supermarkets, but that limits their understanding about where that food comes from. Many cities have farmers’ markets where you can talk with the growers, get to know what’s in season, and have a more interactive experience about food. (They also make a great way to spend a Saturday family afternoon.) Apple orchards, strawberry picking, and working farms also make fun outings that cultivate a deeper bond with food. Even better, if you have the space and inclination, get your children involved with gardening. In one systematic review that reviewed 14 articles, 10 found statistically significant increases in fruit or vegetable consumption among children and adolescents who participated in gardening.
7. Go whole, not processed.
The more a food or drink becomes processed, the fewer nutrients and more additives it likely contains. Eating almonds will always be better than drinking almond milk. You can be fairly certain that gluten or other food sensitivities don’t lurk in organic apples or spinach. You wouldn’t eat five oranges, but you can sure get that sugar load in a glass of orange juice. That doesn’t mean you can’t use some processed foods, but teach your kids to be mindful about ingrediesunts and to read labels. As much as possible, expose your children to real foods they would find in nature that their great-grandparents would have recognized.
8. Make food the reward.
Some research suggests somehow rewarding children for eating healthier. While giving your kids a scoop of ice cream or promising them an extra hour of video games for eating their broccoli might get them to eat more vegetables, it misses the point that properly prepared, healthy foods can be their own reward. That means no more soggy spinach at dinner! Once kids try sautéed spinach with a little coconut oil and garlic, they’ll likely be sold for life. Good food tastes great, and even better, you feel great after you eat it.
9. Make meal time meal time.
Television, iPhones, video games, and other distractions cultivate mindless behavior that spills over into bad eating habits. Have a no-technology rule at the dinner table. Encourage conversation, focus on food and company, and make the ambiance convivial. Remember these are habits you’re developing for a lifetime.
10. Get everyone involved.
Enlisting kitchen help makes your job easier and gives your kids the skills they can learn for life. Healthy recipes that get your young ones involved creates healthy kids. Even the littlest ones can do simple chores like set the table or snap vegetables. Older kids and adolescents can do more advanced tasks like slice food. Make the process fun. Put on some music, ask them how their day was, and congratulate them sincerely for a good job.
11. Keep healthy snacks for kids nearby.
Food preferences are developed through exposure to specific flavors. The more you taste foods, the more familiar you become with them, which means you subsequently enjoy those foods more over time. Proximity matters too, especially with healthy snacks. In one study among college students, researchers found participants would eat more apple slices and carrot cuts if they are nearby and visible. (Apple slices were the clear winner here.)
12. Don’t try to be 100 percent perfect.
Life happens to even the best of us. Teaching your kids to “roll with it” with a healthy mindset after a hectic day means they’re more likely to become adults who grab a rotisserie chicken with some hot-bar veggies rather than order in a pepperoni pizza. Even the best parents don’t hit the healthy-eating market all the time. Do your best and acknowledge not every food experiment will be a victory.
13. Remember you’re in charge.
“I always told my kids that our kitchen was not a restaurant; if they wanted to eat, this was what we were having for dinner. The menu had two choices: take it or leave it,” says Hyman in The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. When it comes to what resides in your fridge or pantry, you’re the boss. Healthy snacks make healthy kids. Yes, children can always eat unhealthy foods elsewhere, and adolescents have their own spending money, but what you stock in your kitchen can create a powerful, lasting influence.
Think about teaching your children and adolescent healthy habits as a sort of education, like riding a bike or managing money. While it might occasionally feel challenging – trying to pry your kid off of a video game or getting your rebellious 15-year-old to cooperate – you’re installing in them an ever-rarer skill that they will carry for life.