Marcia Costello, Ph.D., RD, LD, is an assistant professor in the Villanova University College of Nursing and a registered and licensed dietician. Dr. Costello describes First Lady Michelle Obama’s dedication to the important issue of childhood obesity as "critical to the success of obesity prevention and intervention measures." She also offers 10 wellness tips for promoting healthy body weight in children.
First Lady Michele Obama is introducing a campaign to address the obesity epidemic in children and adolescents in the United States. Her commitment to this major public issue became evident last year when shortly after her husband took office, she – with the help of local school children – created a community vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House.
Mrs. Obama’s dedication to this important issue is critical to the success of obesity prevention and intervention measures, as so much of our families’ individual decisions regarding food purchase, preparation and consumption is influenced by governmental policy.
While obesity has long been blamed on the individual or family unit, researchers and practitioners are now beginning to understand that our actions are guided by availability and access to fresh healthy foods. Urban communities have long been plagued by an inability to purchase healthy fresh fruits and vegetables as residents have had to rely on local corner grocery stores whose selection of these food products is very limited and most often costly.
In addition, while schools teach healthy eating in their health curriculum, many school districts do not apply these concepts to the foods they actually serve in the cafeterias, vending machines and fundraising events.
Americans are finally becoming more educated about these issues and are taking the role of advocates for their families and communities as they face some very concerning issues regarding the long-term health of their children.
Below are 10 wellness tips to promote a healthy body, taking into consideration potential environmental barriers and challenges:
Top 10 Wellness Tips for Promoting Healthy Body Weight in Children
- Eat a healthy breakfast every day: Breakfast skippers are more likely to be overweight individuals. Food high in protein such as eggs, peanut butter, milk and yogurt help to promote fullness that can last through the morning. High-fiber cereals, whole-grain breads and fresh fruit can also increase your sensation of fullness and offer lots of healthy nutrients. For young students on the move in the morning, consider healthy breakfast smoothies with yogurt, instant oatmeal and fresh fruit as a great breakfast to go.
- Pack a nutritious lunch: The National School Lunch Program and school food policies such as vending machine offering need to be realigned to meet current U.S. dietary recommendations. If your school does not promote healthy food choices to your children, then speak out at school board meetings and become an advocate for your child by asking for healthier menu choices. If these choices do not exist, pack nutritious lunches with fresh fruit, raw vegetables, healthy leftovers from dinner, homemade soups, yogurt fortified with high-in-fiber nuts, and low-fat sandwiches with turkey breast and whole-grain breads.
- Eat more family dinners together: Families that consume dinner meals together are more likely to have healthier diets. Families with preschooler children who consume family dinners five or more nights per week are reported to have a lower prevalence of obesity based on the research results in a study released this week in the Journal of Pediatrics. While late afternoon/early evening is a very busy time for families, give children some of the dinner-preparation responsibilities such as making a salad or building a healthy casserole dish. This early introduction to food preparation can help to stimulate an interest in healthy eating, as children who play a role in cooking are more likely to consume the foods that they help to cook.
- Reduce screen time: The amount of screen time – time spent on computers, TV and video – is closely related to the risk of obesity in children. If children are sitting down watching TV, they are not exercising, they may be exposed to commercials for unhealthy foods and they may be snacking on unhealthy food choices. Place a limit on the amount of time per day or week that your child may use for screen time.
- Increase physical activity: While everyone may be aware of the benefits of increasing physical activity in promoting healthy weight, putting this into practice may present some challenges due to time constraints or barriers within the local community such as unsafe streets or lack of neighborhood “walkability.” Schools looking to balance the school budget by cutting back on sport funding or after-school physical activities need to reexamine the long-term consequences of inactivity in our school children, who may face even greater risk of chronic long-term health issues such as hypertension or diabetes. To overcome some of these challenges, lobby local politicians and school officials to create safe community parks and streets, and community centers that encourage opportunities for increased exercise among children. Examine how you can increase time together as a family by riding bikes, walking together or playing a game of Frisbee. This time not only promotes increased cardiovascular fitness, but also offers some special family time away from other life distractions and stresses.
- Get plenty of sleep: In a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, preschoolers who slept at least 10.5 hours on weeknights were less likely to be overweight. Other research on adults has supported the same association with sleeping. Waking up feeling well-rested and refreshed makes it easier to choose healthy foods and exercise during the day.
- Avoid unhealthy quick weight loss schemes: We are constantly exposed to quick, easy ways to lose weight that may only provide short-term solutions and potential long-term problems, especially for children. Because children and adolescents are still maturing physically it is critical that they consume enough energy to help support this growth. Weight-loss diet fads can place them at risk for nutritional deficiencies and potential serious health problems.
- Chose a healthy variety of foods: Instead of focusing on reducing calories, emphasize eliminating or reducing the high-fat, high-sugar junk food in their diet and promote increasing healthy intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and cereals, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats, poultry and fish. Avoid excessive attention on the negative aspects of the diet and work on encouraging the positive aspects of a healthy diet. Consider buying locally produced fresh foods that help support the community and reduce the carbon footprint of food processing.
- Don’t get too hung up on numbers: While Body Mass Index (BMI) is a very important screening tool for identification of those individuals who are either at risk for obesity or overweight, actual body weight should not be used as the primary or sole marker of identification of healthy children. Children and adolescents should not be directed toward focusing on the pounds of their body weight as an indication of their successes or challenges in losing weight. It is important to understand that both female and male children who constantly hear negative messages about their body size or how much they weight may be at increased risk for development of eating issues or disorders. While periodic monitoring of body weight by a health professional is beneficial, families should not feel compelled to drag out the bathroom scale to assess a child’s progress. Instead, focus on the healthy choices they are making in their diet, the increased physical activity in which they are engaging and the decreased amount of screen time spent.
- Educate yourself and your family about healthy nutrition and exercise: Every day we are exposed to nutrition information. Some of it is accurate, some it is not. Talk to experts in the field who are knowledgeable about healthy eating such as the school nurse, a registered dietitian or the pediatrician. Check out some of the government Web sites on healthy nutrition for children – they have many resources for how to promote a healthier lifestyle, not only in the home, but also in the community in which we live.
*To speak with Dr. Marcia Costello, please contact the Villanova University Media Relations Office.