With diminishing outdoor playtime, a lack of healthy meal options in the lunchroom, and a litany of high-processed food products marketed to children, it can be an uphill battle to instill in your family healthy, nutritious eating habits.
According to the CDC
, childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years, with more than one third of American kids now overweight or obese. The immediate and long-term health effects of carrying that extra weight is profound, including cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, social stigmatization, and increased risk of many types of cancers. But just as overweight or obese youth are more likely to become obese adults, children who are taught healthy lifestyles and proper nutrition at an early age are likely to carry those healthy habits into adulthood.
Eating habits are formed early in life, and are very difficult to change once established. “We are so programmed to think 'lunch, dessert, snack, dinner, and followed by another dessert,' but a lot of those habits are based just on what's expected and not what our bodies really need,” says Maggie Chalson, M.D., a pediatrician with a special interest in nutrition at the Balanced Plate Academy
, a division of Allied Physicians Group
, where kids learn how to make healthy choices to get on the path to wellness-and stay there for life.
The 12-week Balanced Plate program coaches kids through weight loss with one-on-one lessons covering such topics as: What are macronutrients? How do we choose them appropriately? And why do we eat when we feel bored? Participants also receive an individually tailored meal plan, including recipes structured around their specific likes and dislikes. (Childhood weight issues often go hand-in-hand with other health problems, such as allergies, celiac disease, diabetes, or depression. In these cases, it is important that nutritionists work with general practitioners and physicians in addressing underlying medical problems that require nutritional support.)
There is a psychological aspect of eating along with the physiological, which can lead to emotionally driven overeating. A crucial lesson all kids should learn, Dr. Chalson says, is to listen to your body and understand what it really needs-how to perceive the sensation of real hunger and satiation. Before reaching for a snack, ask yourself, are you really hungry? Or do you just feel like eating because it feels good? “That's a hard lesson to learn,” Dr. Chalson says, “for both children and adults alike.”
Of course, no one wants to deprive their kids or institute a rigid diet on an adolescent. An important part of health and wellness is maintaining balance. Just like adults, kids must learn how to incorporate special treats-pizza and cake at a birthday party, for instance-into a successful wellness plan so they can enjoy and participate in real life. Introducing healthy options, especially with extremely picky eaters or kids who don't want to try new things, is an important part of wellness education. Sometimes kids need extra encouragement to try more fruits and vegetables, and often times just need to hear it from an adult who's not a parent, Dr. Chalson says.
An active, physical lifestyle is an essential part of any health and wellness program. But exercise doesn't necessarily mean an organized soccer game. It could be as simple as daily dog walks, family bike rides, or throwing a ball in the yard. In her monthly newsletter, Dr. Chalson offers advice on how to get up and get moving, even in the coldest months, when no one wants to be outside. The important thing, she writes, is to “get up off the couch and away from the nachos.”
The Balanced Plate Academy is not only a weight treatment program, but also a preventative and educational program. Often, a child will come in to address a specific health issue, but the whole family benefits. Dr. Chalson has witnessed many parents lose a tremendous amount of weight along with their child in the Academy, and these positive changes carry forward because everyone in the family is accountable. There are not shot-term changes, but life-long habits.
A healthy childhood is dependent on smart parenting; parents are the gatekeepers for the whole family. “Every bit of research has shown that when you make healthy changes collectively, there is greater success,” Dr. Chalson says. Make health and wellness a family endeavor, suggests Dr. Chalson-go to the supermarket together, learn how to read nutrition labels, cook meals together, be active together, grow your own fruits and vegetables-lay a healthy foundation in childhood for your kids to take with them throughout their whole life.