What we eat early on shapes brain development, metabolism, and overall health. Today, childrens’ nutrition is no where near where it needs to be. Childhood obesity is at its highest rate and signs of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes are now being seen in teenagers.
About one-third (33%) of U.S. kids are classified as being overweight or obese, with the majority of these not coming from inherited metabolic conditions. This is happening because of the environment that surrounds the children, not because children are “born” with it.
Health Problems Accompanying Childhood Obesity
Carrying excess body fat isn’t healthy, and it sets the stage for both childhood and adult diseases.
- 70% of obese teens are already showing signs of cardiovascular disease — a health problem that normally doesn’t appear until decades later.
- Adipose tissue (fat) secretes hormones and chemical signals; too much fat means inflammation. In kids, this means things like asthma.
- Fat can accumulate in the liver; non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the leading cause of liver disease in kids worldwide. Children with fatty livers face double the risk of arterial plaque buildup.
- Over-fat children have impaired insulin sensitivity, glucose disposal, and prediabetes.
- Over-fat children have higher long-term risk of chronic conditions such asstroke; breast, colon, and kidney cancers; musculoskeletal disorders; and gall bladder disease.
- Normal growth and hormonal development can be disrupted. This can affect how they develop during puberty, and their future reproductive health. Girls might hit puberty way too early; boys may experience gynecomastia (breast development).
(Berardi, J. Precision Nutrition)
Once a body is overweight at a critical developmental period, it’s very hard to change. Health and physical activity habits established in early life will have effects for decades to come.
As much as the anti-bullying movement has moved in recent years, there will always be mean kids out there. Being overweight at a young age brings teasing, name-calling, and social exclusion to the table. Things like this will have an impact on a child’s future, and most of the time this impact will be a negative one. Not to mention, kids are supposed to be young, wild, and free; not depressed or hating themselves and their body. HELP your kids be the carefree children they are supposed to be with EARLY healthy habits and physical activity.
Just like grownups, kids depend on good digestion. But because they’re young and vulnerable, they’re often prone to catching viruses and bacterial infections. The result is sometimes diarrhea, which often signals an intestinal infection.
But not all diarrhea results from illness. A major preventable cause is fruit juice. Juice contains fructose and sorbitol, which contribute to diarrhea in high amounts.
And just as with adults, the bacterial balance in children’s guts can influence their immune function.
That’s why probiotics could help to improve gut health, resolve diarrhea after antibiotic use, and control inflammation. Even in children. Indeed, a host of child-friendly probiotics are now available.
Brain and Behavior
As most know, a child’s brain is a blossoming sponge and needs all the quality nutrients it can possibly get. Poor nutrition can lead to a variety of behavioral and mood problems such as depression and ADHD. Aggressiveness and violence can be a result of poor nutrition, as well.
Caffeine would be considered poor nutrition. One study found that 8-12 year old children consumed an average of 109 mg of caffeine — the equivalent of a cup of coffee a day. Since one cola contains around 30-35 mg caffeine, that means the average kid drinks about 3 colas a day. Besides the caffeine, that much soda intake will undoubtedly have an affect on children’s body fat storage due to the excess amount of sugar.
How can you help?
It can be overwhelming to have to change your whole diet around in order to get your kids to eat right, but that is what has to be done. As parents, role models, and guardians, you must show children how they are supposed to eat, not just tell them. Where to start?
- Choose whole, unprocessed foods. Avoid processed foods that are specifically marketed to kids.
- Incorporate vegetables and fruits into kids’ daily diet.
- Supplement with vitamins and minerals if needed, but try to get nutrients from a varied, whole-foods diet first.
- Help kids regulate their appetite and hunger cues with whole foods and mindful eating.
- Take the lead. You’re the parent.
- Adopt healthy habits yourself, so that kids have a role model for their own behavior.
Don’t let your children be sucked in by target marketing that occurs on the TV. Make them aware that all this certain company is doing is trying to make more money.
“Child-friendly” products are almost always filled with very poor nutrients and pounded with sugar to make them addicting and taste good. Great examples of these are Lunchables and Go-Gurt. Be extremely wary of cereals, as well. Kids cereals are rarely a good choice. Kelloggs and Quaker Oats are notorious for their sugar-loaded breakfast recipes.
Fats. Make sure your kids are getting the essential fat intake they need for cognitive development, hormone production, and disease prevention.
Kids need healthy dietary fats in the diet — without these fats, kids develop deficiencies, which can lead to growth, eye, body composition, blood lipid, and brain problems.
Omega-3s such as EPA/DHA and ALA come from fish oils, nuts, and seeds (flax, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and chia).
Also, unless they are allergic to eggs, make sure to cook the yolk of the egg along with the whites. The yolk contains fat and choline that is essential for brain development.
When cooking, switch to coconut oil to grease up the pan. Coconut oil has no taste and adds many essential fats straight into the food.
Help kids help themselves.
Take kids to the grocery store with you and empower them to make their own healthy choices in the produce section. Make them feel like when they choose the veggies or fruits, they aren’t being forced.
Just like adults, kids have the ability to self-regulate when it comes to satiety. They know when they are full. There is no need to count calories with kids! Some days they will eat a lot, some days they just won’t be feeling it. TRUST that feeling that they are having. Things that can mess up a kid’s ability to self-regulate include: inappropriate portion sizing, processed foods, restricting foods, labeling foods as “bad,” or eating rushed.
Strategies that DON’T work:
- offer them food as a reward when they’re upset;
- have strict rules about “good” and “bad” foods;
- push them to finish dinner;
- try bribing them (“If you finish your spinach you’ll get ice cream”).
These will only make things WORSE.
Here are some better strategies:
- Serve them a variety of unprocessed whole foods.
- Serve appropriate portions.
- Give them the illusion of choice and self-determination (e.g. “You can pick 1 vegetable you’d like to eat tonight”).
- Let kids stop when they’re no longer hungry (instead of insisting that they clear their plate).
- Avoid strict “eating rules” or references to children’s weight.
- Don’t keep unhealthy choices in the house. Make healthy choices abundantly available. Don’t make this a big deal; just make poor choices simply and quietly… unavailable.
- Involve kids in shopping, menu planning, and cooking.
- Slow down.
- Eat together as a family as often as possible; make meal time family time.
These strategies can lead to children developing healthy and natural eating habits that will last a lifetime.
Parents, set the example of healthy eating! Ultimately, children pay more attention to what their parents do than what their parents say. So set a great example, and chances are, your children will follow where you lead.
How much should kids eat? They should eat until they are no longer hungry.
What should kids eat? A mix of mostly whole, minimally processed foods.
What should kids drink? Mostly water and unsweetened teas.
How to ensure healthy bowel movements? Adequate fluid, physical activity, and whole plant foods (vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds).
The #1 thing you can do to help your kids? Adopt healthy habits yourself.
Healthy eating to all, and to all, a healthy life.
Move to the beat of your own drum.