We know the statistics. Childhood obesity has become a national public health challenge, with rates of childhood obesity doubling in the past 30 years. (1) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 approximately 1/3 of children were obese or overweight. (2) A study released by the American Heart Association just this month found 5 percent of American teenagers were severely obese.
With a national focus on childhood obesity this month, teaching children to manage their weight and eat consciously should play a significant role in empowering children to prevent obesity. Children are capable of learning about food, nutrition and movement. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that children are starting to eat more vegetables and move. While these results are encouraging, significant gains are still needed to combat this national health crisis.
Having sent my own child off to school recently, I realize that access to the right food prevents children from making poor food choices, but empowering children with the tools and knowledge to make healthy decisions is a life skill that can be taught. Children can learn to budget calories, sugar and fat. We just need to teach them.
In our house, we budget sugar by creating our own system of sugar finance. The children are allowed so many “sugar dollars” per day and have learned to use addition and subtraction to decide if they can eat that second cupcake or lollipop. They think about the number of sugary drinks they may have had and they count their servings of fruits and vegetables. They actually treat the whole system like a game and are determined to win everyday by banking their sugar dollars for real money at the end of the week. They are, by the way, 5 years and 4 years of age, respectively.
I have seen many great initiatives trying to bring the concept of nutrition into the schools. Vending machines with healthy foods, improved food service, and community gardens are becoming a part of our children’s schools. While this is encouraging, I still do not see a national curriculum on nutrition that teaches children to budget and measure food, calories and sugar on a daily basis. We need a curriculum that empowers the child. Sugar dollars may be a start, but we need more creative tools to help kids help themselves.
In developing such a curriculum, children will also learn the more intangible lessons of self control, discipline and respect for one’s body. These are skills that will determine success later in life. Short term, self gratification does not lead to success of any kind. Strategic thinking, planning and impulse control will. Having observed my own children and many others, these are early learning lessons. They should begin in preschool and advanced through elementary education.
While we work on food deserts, movement and genetically modified food, lets include the child at the center of the childhood obesity concept. As a mom, pediatrician, integrative health expert and living healthy naturally M.D., I know that children can do this. They can beat the obesity crisis if we can create the right curriculum. We need to empower the child.
1. Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among US children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association 2012;307(5):483-490.
2. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2011: With Special Features on Socioeconomic Status and Health. Hyattsville, MD; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012.