With 1 in 5 children affected by obesity, childhood obesity is considered an epidemic in the U.S. In fact, the number of children and teens affected by obesity has more than tripled over the past 50 years.
It's important to note that there is no single cause behind this rise in childhood obesity.
"At its most basic explanation, children are consuming more than they are expending, but the issues behind that are many and can be unique to each family and community," explains Sarah E. Barlow, M.D., Director of Children's Health℠ Integrated Program in Childhood Obesity and Professor at UT Southwestern.
Some contributing factors to weight gain and obesity may include easy access to unhealthy food options, growing portion sizes and an increasingly sedentary culture. However, Dr. Barlow has also noticed some common behaviors among parents that may unknowingly lead to unhealthy habits in children.
Check these five habits in your own family and learn how to encourage healthy choices.
1. Feeding children whenever they say they are hungry
This habit may seem harmless, but parents may be surprised to learn that even young children can have a tough time distinguishing between hunger and something else.
"As parents, if you have a child who says they are hungry, the automatic response is 'I need to feed them,'" says Dr. Barlow. "Yet, that child may not really be hungry, but craving or bored instead."
Dr. Barlow encourages parents to establish a schedule of three mealtimes a day and one planned snack (or two snacks for preschool-aged children). During meals, help children practice mindful eating and learn to recognize hunger and satiety cues. You can do this by not forcing children to finish their plates and by turning off electronics so that children pay attention to the food they are eating.
If children say they are hungry, consider the last time they ate and if they can wait until the next scheduled mealtime. Will dinner be ready in 30 minutes? Help find something to do while they wait. When they come to the table with an appetite, they will enjoy the food you have made. Are they asking because they might be bored, anxious or thirsty? If they are truly hungry, offer fruit or crunchy vegetables rather than sugary or salty foods that are commonly craved.
2. Reaching for snacks on the go
Between work, school and extracurricular activities, many families are on the go constantly – and one item most parents don't leave home without is a snack. However, Dr. Barlow encourages parents to monitor how often snacks are given and why.
"Cup holders and snack trays are common accessories on a child's stroller or car seat now. Years ago, you didn't see that," says Dr. Barlow. "Food should be used to nourish, not to pacify or reward."
As opposed to a time when most food had to be prepared in the kitchen, the ease of prepackaged foods and vending machines encourages snacking wherever and whenever. Rather than automatically offering a snack every time you hop in the car, offer food only during normal snack times or if your child is truly hungry. In addition, be mindful that a snack-size portion is smaller than a meal portion, and provide nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, string cheese and popcorn.
3. Preparing special or alternative foods for children
Many parents fall into a routine of offering children special meals to ensure their child will eat. This might involve swapping out a main dish of grilled chicken for chicken nuggets or serving a favorite standby like mac and cheese every night instead of what the rest of the family is eating. Dr. Barlow warns that this can be a bad habit to start.
Families should make an effort to enjoy mealtimes together, and children should eat what parents are eating – which should be a healthy and balanced plate," Dr. Barlow says. "We want children to think of healthy meals as normal, not weird or something only for grown-ups."
While parents can't control whether children choose to eat, they can control what foods are available. Consistently offering a variety of nutritious foods and flavors from an early age can help promote food acceptance. If a child chooses not to eat what is offered, resist offering a substitute and let your child know that they can eat at the next scheduled mealtime.
4. Offering beverages other than water and milk
Sugar-sweetened beverages are a large source of added sugar for children, and that sugar can quickly add up. Drinking one soda per day equals 55 pounds of sugar per year.
"One of the most important changes a family can make for their health is to get rid of sugar-sweetened beverages," says Dr. Barlow.
While many parents are aware that sodas are not healthy for their child, they might not realize that other common drinks, like sports drinks, fruit juices and sweet tea, also include large amounts of sugar. Dr. Barlow encourages families to be aware of the amount of sugar in common beverages and to stick to water and low-fat milk for young children. Look for ways to encourage children to drink more water, such as freezing fruit in ice cubes or using fun straws.
5. Addressing weight in a negative way – or not addressing weight at all
Many parents struggle with the right way to talk to their child about weight. Some families try to motivate children by emphasizing the problems with being overweight, but this can cause children to feel ashamed or judged. Other families work so hard to avoid any concern about weight that they may not teach their children the relation between healthy food and a healthy body.
Dr. Barlow recommends that parents talk about how eating well and being active creates strong and healthy bodies – bodies that grow well. The emphasis is on a well-functioning body, not the number of pounds on a scale.
"Having a conversation as a family about health is a great approach when a parent realizes that children may be at risk for too much weight gain," Dr. Barlow says. "Talk about being committed to keeping your bodies healthy and growing well. Focus on healthy behavior rather than pounds gained or lost."
Dr. Barlow reminds parents that determining whether the child's weight is in the healthy range should always start with a child's pediatrician. A pediatrician is the right person to examine a child's trajectory of height and weight and explain body mass index (BMI). A pediatrician can also help guide families in how to make healthy changes to reduce the health risks of childhood obesity.
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