We’re hearing more and more about childhood obesity, and with good reason. It’s a growing issue (pun intended) that may have a significant impact on both health care costs and our quality of life.
According to a recent report from the Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 11.2 percent of Iowa children, and 13.2 percent of South Dakota children, are classified as obese (individuals with a body mass index of 30 or higher). And while a variety of strategies have been proposed to combat the problem, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield Chief Medical Officer Paul Karazija, M.D., notes it still comes down to the difference between calories in and calories out.
“We tend to make things more complicated than they really are,” Karazija says. “If we want to reduce childhood obesity, we need to lower the number of calories kids take in through foods and drinks, and increase the number of calories they burn through exercise.”
Reducing calories in
Improving nutrition begins in the grocery aisle. Whole grain and reduced calorie versions are available for many kids’ staples. Grocery labeling systems like Nu-Val (available at Hy-Vee stores), can help parents choose the most nutritious options of kids’ favorite foods. And 100-calorie packs of snack foods can help manage portion sizes.
Parental restraint can also go a long way.
“Kids will eat whatever is readily available,” he says. “If we want our kids to eat fewer cookies and more apples, then we need to buy more apples, and keep the cookies out of the cupboard.”
Another easy way to reduce calories is by cutting back on sugary drinks. A 20-ounce bottle of regular Pepsi® contains 250 calories – 13 percent of your recommended daily calories (based on a 2,000 calorie diet) – without providing any food value. Kids may think sports drinks like Gatorade are healthier, but they, too, pack a caloric punch.
“Drinking water is always your best bet to avoid those empty calories,” Karazija says. “Diet soda, and juice drinks for younger children, should be reserved for special occasions and not be part of the daily routine.”
Increasing calories out
Kids need exercise, Karazija says, plain and simple. Regular physical activity has a variety of benefits, helping maintain a healthy weight, increasing strength and agility, and improving cardiovascular fitness.
Unfortunately, a decline in kids’ physical activity has been linked to a dramatic increase in screen time, as many kids choose to watch television, text or email friends, or play video games after school.
While many kids are involved in sports activities, Karazija says they also need to develop personal, lifelong exercise habits they can take with them after their baseball or soccer team stops playing.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, just get out and do it,” he says. “If kids find a variety of physical activities they enjoy, they may not even realize they’re exercising.”
Parents and children can also work together, making small changes that benefit the entire family. Taking a brisk walk after dinner or walking younger children to a nearby playground can establish a healthy routine of physical activity. And one they’ll someday pass on to their own children.
An easy way to start making changes is by adopting the American Association of Pediatrics “5-2-1-0” formula:
- Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day
- Limit television or computer “screen time” to two hours per day
- Get at least one hour of physical activity
- Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages.
Kids may not like giving up their Cap’n Crunch® and juice boxes, or limiting their Facebook time, but Karazija says the payoff is worth the effort.
“Childhood obesity is the number one health risk facing our young people, and we need to take it seriously if we want to make a difference.”
For more information on health and health insurance, call the Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield Personal Health Assistant 24/7 at 1-800-724-9122.