Parents and pediatricians should fight childhood obesity by improving diet and activity levels in the home, new guidelines propose.
In a new paper, leading physicians' group the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is updating its guidelines, last issued more than a decade ago, about how to stem rising rates of childhood obesity. The updated recommendations encourage parents to help change kids' eating and levels of activity at home, and emphasize family-based strategies to promote healthier lifestyles.
More than one-third of American children and teens are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although some progress has been made in fighting obesity, including recent declines in obesity rates among preschool-age children, weight problems in kids remain a serious health concern.
"Once obesity is established, it's very hard to treat," said Dr. Stephen Daniels, chairman of the AAP nutrition committee and chair of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver.
Because it takes a lot of time and effort to treat obesity, the paper's main message for parents and pediatricians is to focus on preventing childhood obesity in the first place, Daniels said. Many of the behavioral approaches used to treat kids who have already become obese might also apply to its prevention, he noted.
"The home environment has a big influence on what kids eat and how active they are," Daniels told Live Science. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]
That's why the report, published online today (June 29) in the journal Pediatrics, outlines key steps that parents can take to promote healthy eating at home and an active lifestyle for families, he said.
To prevent childhood obesity, the AAP guidelines recommend that parents do the following:
- Control the foods that are brought into the home, and be aware of age-appropriate portion sizes for children. If healthful foods are stocked at home, then kids can make good choices within a prescribed zone, Daniels said.
- Buy fewer sweetened beverages (including sodas, iced teas, juice drinks and sports drinks) and instead encourage children to drink water, milk and limited amounts of 100 percent fruit juice.
- Make healthier foods visible and easily available, and wrap higher-calorie foods in foil and put them in the back of the refrigerator or pantry.
- Serve as important role models for kids by setting a good example with their own eating and exercising habits, even parents who are struggling with weight issues themselves, Daniels said.
- Reduce opportunities for sedentary entertainment. Parents should keep TVs, computers, video games and electronic devices, out of children's bedrooms and ban these devices in areas where family meals are consumed to prevent distracted eating.
- Limit screen time to no more than two hours a day at most for children ages 2 and older. "Often, screen time is accompanied by eating, so a child is getting a double whammy of extra calories and inactivity," Daniels said. Kids should replace screen time with activity time, he advised.
- Encourage overweight children to keep track of their eating and activity levels (physical and sedentary) in a diary, log or other form of daily self-monitoring. Children and parents can work together to set goals and review their results, and set nonfood rewards for when small goals are achieved. Often the reward that most children are looking for is to spend more time with a parent involved in an activity, which can be a win-win if this is a physical activity, Daniels suggested.
- Make sure that children get enough sleep. Recent research has suggested a link between obesity in children and insufficient sleep. Studies have shown that when sleep is increased to age-appropriate levels, children are less likely to become overweight or obese.
Although parents may have heard this health advice before, putting these steps into practice and holding the line with kids can be difficult, Daniels said. Parents can start by picking one behavior change they can implement effectively, praising good behavior when a child demonstrates it and then building on this initial success over time, he suggested.
Daniels stressed that parents have a lot of influence over the behaviors that can lead to childhood obesity. And the time spent by parents and pediatricians addressing and reinforcing prevention issues early on can be beneficial to families, and have a big impact on long-term health, he said.