Childhood obesity, which has grown exponentially over the past 30 years, could be linked to two phases of youth, according to researchers who studied more than 300 children. In the study, obesity trends of today were compared with those of the 1980s, and as reported by the International Journal of Obesity, signs of childhood obesity in smaller children were linked to the influences of their parents, while teenagers were more influenced by their peers.
Along with obesity among adults, which causes diabetes, cardiac disease and other severe health issues, childhood obesity has become a growing concern over the recent years. In fact, since the ’80s, the percentage of childhood obesity has more than tripled from five percent to 16 percent, and in order to address the problem, researchers are trying to find which children comprise the larger part of these percentages. While toddlers with overweight or obese parents tended to become overweight themselves, the level of toddler obesity among non-obese parents had more or less remained the same. However, it was reported that among 16-year-olds, obesity had risen across the board.
While these types of studies are needed to determine the cause of childhood obesity, what is more important is coming up with strategies in how to use this data to combat this serious epidemic. While parents are less in the position to influence children who are 16 and over, by developing healthy habits for themselves as well as their children from the time they are born, the positive changes implemented will trickle up to the teen years.
Junking the Junk: As shown in the study, the largest factor of childhood obesity among smaller children is obese parents. This is attributed to the type of lifestyles they live, which are often sedentary, and extends to what is kept in the food pantry. The average household, especially low-income families, purchases foods which are often low in nutrients and high in sugars. Examples of this include cereal, refined wheat products such as white bread, and snacks, which also contains refined grain and sugars.
Habits as severe as keeping junk around the house give children little opportunity to achieve a healthy diet and lifestyle. Because of their parents’ lack of physical activity, these children end up having sedentary childhoods, setting a pattern which they retain throughout their teen years. In combating childhood obesity, certain actions must be done in the home, which starts with eliminating food of no nutritional benefit and replacing it with fruits, vegetable, healthy grains and proteins. For parents concerned about their children being bored with healthy foods, there are plenty of healthy and fun recipes available online.
Grounding the Helicopter: Dr. Haim Ginott, in his 1969 book, Parents & Teenagers, coined the term “helicopter parent,” which referred to parents who were generally overprotective and, at times, overbearing in the fact that they allowed their children very little autonomy to make their own decisions. Habits of helicopter parents include selecting their children’s activities; shadowing or having an adult shadow his or her activities; not allowing the child any alone time individually or with friends without adult supervision; and even selecting their friends. While being engaged as a parent could have numerous benefits, like ensuring the child’s safety or knowing with whom he or she is spending time, constantly monitoring activity could hinder the youth’s maturity and ability to perform activities independently as well as lower his or her self esteem. Low confidence and poor self esteem leads to stress and ambivalence, and in turn, causes the child to gain weight.
Thirty years ago, it was not uncommon for a child to spend the afternoon after school, or an entire weekend, outdoors with friends until nightfall. Children got their exercise by riding their bikes to their friends’ houses, where they spent the entire day, calling in once to let mom know he or she was okay. Today, time alone with friends has decreased dramatically, as several parents have opted for supervised play dates. This form of managed parenting has prevented children from being more active, coupled by the parents driving them to and from their friends’ houses.
Helicopter parenting has increased almost as exponentially as childhood obesity itself, and is for the most part unnecessary. For parents who are concerned about safety, unlike thirty years ago when a land line was the only way to get in touch, cell phones can be used for a positive purpose, as long as it is not excessive. Keeping the helicopter on the landing pad, and prioritizing its use (as mentioned below) will help reduce childhood obesity while ensuring that children get more of the physical activity they need.
Stay off the Drugs: Prescription medication is extremely likely to be a link to childhood obesity in each of the two phases of childhood. Some helicopter parents, in addition to being over-protective, allow their children little autonomy, and worry that if their children’s education is not progressing according to popular expectations, there is automatically something wrong with that child. Term like ADD and ADHD were unheard of 30 years ago, and while there did exist some kids who were less attentive than others, proper coaching allowed them to work through their issues and excel.
Concern with these so-called behavioral issues has more to do with parents and teachers expecting the child to conform to a set of standards rather than develop as an individual. The pharmaceutical industry has made matters worse by profiting off of these man-made fears by prescribing drugs geared toward “fixing” neurological disorders. These medications almost always contain chemicals, which cause side effects. Mostly acids, these chemicals alter the body’s digestive system considerably and contribute significantly to childhood obesity.
Keeping it Unplugged: The band Pink Floyd may have put it best with the quote, “Thirteen channels of [expletive] on the TV to choose from,” however, that was back in the 1980s and times have changed since then. Television programming today offers more than 100 channels of children and teen programs which often run simultaneously. With the ability to record everything, children now have the ability to watch one show without having to miss the other, which they can watch later. This leads to more than quadruple the TV time that was available to children of the 1980s, not only causing them to become couch potatoes, but giving them more access to their junk food in the home.
While helicopter parenting can be detrimental to a child’s growth in many ways, at times it is effective and necessary, but should be reserved only for the landing pad – namely the home. Ironically, in many cases the most over-protective parent becomes the most liberal under-protective supervisor once in the safety of the home, where they allow their children free reign, not only to watch as much TV as their eyes desire, but access to their gaming devices as well, which all contribute to childhood obesity.
Dumb is Smarter: No one can argue that cell phones have provided enormous benefits for their users and, in addition to being an enormous convenience in a time of need, a mobile phone has the potential to save lives in ways which would not have been possible 30 years ago. The more recent advent of smartphones over the past eight years has given consumers, business people and professionals a wealth of tools and resources, which in today’s business world are essential in many cases.
Parents giving their children smartphones as early as age ten may not be the wisest decision. Whereas 30 years ago, children engaged in physical activities and interacted in person, the sight of children, especially teens, glued to their phones for hours sending text messages, without any physical movement in between, has become a regular occurrence and is surely a cause of childhood obesity. Parents concerned about their children being reachable should opt for a basic mobile, and if a parent feels his or her child needs a smartphone, then he or she needs to set the right example by not being on it all the time as well.
Exer-cate: Though not much has changed in the world of education as far as school days (outside of smart boards replacing the standard blackboard), forcing children to sit in a classroom for several hours at a time has never been a healthy practice. Researchers have in fact pointed out that along with the sedentary lifestyles more and more children lead, sitting for excessively long periods of time is unnatural and causes children to fall asleep, become distracted and disrupt the teacher as well as other students. All that time sitting in one place could very well contribute to the problem of childhood obesity. Dr. Mark Benden, who is an associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, suggests a practice dating back to the 18th century of having “standing desks” in classrooms, or at least a modified version of it, which would allow children to move around at certain intervals. Some teachers have already implemented stretch periods in the class where children can walk around for a few minutes before continuing their day.
Childhood obesity is a serious epidemic, and although researchers have succeeded in linking it to two phases of youth, that is only the first step. While environmental and community factors contribute much to this condition, several simple steps and a change in the priorities of parents will do much to combat childhood obesity and set children on a healthy path.
Opinion by Bill Ades