What causes children to become overweight and obese?

For most children it comes down to a combination of two decisions: Eating too much (usually of the wrong foods) and engaging in too little physical activity (not enough exertion). 

Many factors in today’s society are tipping this balance in an unhealthy direction and include:

Increased TV/screen time: The amount of time spent viewing electronic media (TV, computers, videos, games, smart phones and iPods) has increased for every generation since the 50’s, currently at the highest levels ever. We need to reverse this trend. By setting limits on screen time your child cannot help but become more active. While watching TV or using the computer, teach child to be active during commercials or during “download” time on the computer. 

Decreased physical education time in our schools: In 2011 very few states required daily physical education classes for students K through 12th grade, a result of shrinking school budgets and a shift to emphasizing standardized test scores over physical fitness. Twenty-two percent of U.S. schools require no physical education at all. To counteract this, and help children increase their activity, our program includes the Walk a Mile in My Shoes program aimed to get children to “step up” to the challenge of becoming more active.

Parental reluctance to allow children to play outside: Safety concerns such as lack of sidewalks, poor proximity to safe outdoor play spaces, and parents working outside of the home keep many children indoors after school instead of running and playing outside. While many of these factors cannot be changed, being aware of their activity limiting effects is the first step to overcoming them. If necessary parents should drive children to a safe playground or recreation facility.

School busing programs:  Previous generations walked or biked to school more than today’s students (often uphill, in both directions!). Now less than half of our nation’s children walk or bike to school and a whopping 26 million kids are bused to school every day! Reasons include safety concerns, liability issues for schools, and large distance from school. If children live too far to walk, there is no other option, but parents must realize these kids must spend more time in activity after school versus their “walk to school” peers.

Technology: So many advances have left us doing less and less physical work. Cars drive us around, motorized play cars have replaced pedal cars and big wheels, machines do our wash and clean the dishes, computers make trips to the library obsolete, elevators and escalators move us up and down effortlessly, TV remotes keep us glued to the couch, and cell phones eliminate the need to “run to the phone” when it rings. Want to watch a movie? No need to go to a movie theater, rent one without leaving the sofa! We teach families how to tweak daily routine  to help families be more active.

Boredom: Children today have grown up entertained by the television, video games, and computer and as a result often have very short attention spans and bore easily. People tend to eat when bored; so if a child is frequently bored, he is at risk for overeating. We attempt to engage the family in fun activities, and teach children the concept of being responsible for their own entertainment.
Food as a pacifier: Emotional eating is when a child turns to comforting foods to self soothe during times of stress. Today’s children report more stress than ever resulting in increased emotional eating. Our program helps teach children to replace emotional eating with more constructive self soothing behavior.

Cultural changes associated with mealtime: Previous generations spent a relaxed “dinner hour” socializing, bonding, and communicating about daily life with each other. Now, this is often relegated to weekends, special occasions, and holidays (often in restaurants, not the family dinner table!). Over scheduled after school activities are often to blame; children’s hectic schedules do not allow the family to dine together. Many meals are eaten standing up, in the car, or in front of TV, alone, and rushed. While a dinner ‘hour’ is not necessary, our program encourages families to sit down and break bread together most nights each week for at least 20 minutes.

Societal changes in family structure: With both parents now often working outside the home, home cooked meals have become a luxury— not a necessity for a healthy family—as it should be. We show how fast food made at home can be easy and satisfying, not to mention nutritious.

Increased access to take out/fast food and restaurant meals: A family as recent as the 1940’s had access to very few restaurants and no fast food chains to provide quick, inexpensive meals. The notion of take out did not exist; and unless you were living in a city with a large Italian or Chinese population, there was little chance of finding pizza or Chinese food! Restaurant meals for many were reserved for special occasions, if ever. Now some families eat meals prepared outside the home more than home cooked meals! We need to reverse this trend and give suggestions how to successfully reduce consumption of prepared meals with minimal disruption to family lifestyle.

Inappropriately large portion sizes and increase caloric consumption: Each decade portion sizes increase, while activity decreases! Our view of healthy portions is so distorted that many restaurants serve portion sizes large enough for 3 to 4 adults! In fact, the average American diet has increased by 200 calorie per day over the last 15 years. It’s no surprise that the average French fry serving has nearly tripled while the average hamburger size has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. We teach how to judge reasonable portion sizes to promote health and wellness.

Poor food choices in the home: Pantries stocked with frozen, microwavable meals, quick and easy processed snacks, sugared breakfast cereals, and little perishable fruits and vegetables is not uncommon to see, even in families who claim to be “health conscious.” Astonishingly, government statistics indicate that only 2% of American children’s diet actually conforms to the recommendations established by the USDA. Our view of acceptable food options has changed; we need to refocus on getting “back to the basics.” We show families how.  

Poor nutrition, the result of parents with little nutritional knowledge shopping and planning the meals for the family: One generation of suboptimal eaters raising another equals plenty of room for improvement. Only 1 child in 10 is getting the recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

And the #1 vegetable consumed by children is… French fries, while the 40% of fruit consumed by children is in the form of fruit juice. Our program offers a basic crash course in “kitchen nutrition” so parents can learn the basics of meal planning, grocery shopping, reading nutritional labels, understanding the USDA’s food recommendations, minimum daily requirements, and basic nutritional science as it relates to feeding a family.

Parents who want to be friends, not parents: Parents, often guilty about divorce or full work schedules, want to be friends when with their children, not role models or disciplinarians. While this may make a parent feel good, this is very bad for children.   They need boundaries which come from parents, not friends. Parents learn to set boundaries for their child and our program encourages parents to set clear expectations where everyone knows what is expected with respect to food choices, mealtime behavior, expected activity levels, and limits on screen time.

Overweight parents often equals overweight kids: The same bad habits that cause ⅔ of all American adults to be overweight can influence our children, making them more likely to be overweight. Our holistic approach teaches the entire family healthier eating and activity habits, so everyone’s health improves.

Media: Our children are constantly bombarded with media enticements…sugared cereals, processed snacks, sodas, fast food, and candy which all converge into one cohesive message, “Go eat, and while you’re at it, eat lots!” Families need to confront media intrusion head on and take control of food messages. We offer much needed help to counteract this messaging.

Mealtime as TV time: With more American’s owning TV sets in the 1950’s “TV dinners” became popular, a trend that persists to this day. While we may no longer eat on dinner “trays” in front of the TV (no need anymore, most kitchens have a TV!), the TV is on and keeps us from registering “I am full!” We encourage enforcing a no TV Zone during meal time. This improves conversation, bonding, and helps us all register “I’m full” sooner.

Snacks are no longer snacks: Many kids now equate snacks with treats. When was the last time your child had apple slices for a snack? Or crackers and cheese? Cookies, pie, cake, candy, processed snacks, and chips are not snacks; they are treats and should not be offered more than once per day, except on rare occasions. Our program retrains parents and kids to recognize the difference between snacks and treats!

Increasing amounts of inexpensive sweeteners and fats in our food supply: High fructose corn syrup is an inexpensive sweetener that began showing up in the food supply in the 70’s. At six times sweeter than natural cane sugar, it has contributed to our nation’s burgeoning sweet tooth. Inexpensive fats and fats with long shelf stability, also debuting in the 70’ s, made food more fattening for less money.

This perfect storm of food science made foods sweeter and fattier at a lower cost! We teach you to read nutritional labels to avoid these food traps! Be bargain wary. Food companies know if unhealthy food is cheap, it’s one more reason parents will give into demands and buy it!

As you can see from all the factors above, children did not create the obesity epidemic, adults did! Adults have created the technology, changed meal time expectations and behaviors, changed the type of food and amount served, created media campaigns to affect our eating habits, and chose to live a more sedentary lifestyle than generations past. 

Adults have created the epidemic, and now they must implement fundamental changes at the federal, state, local, school, and family level. Fortunately, the most effective front to fight on is the home battlefield. Join with us and help your family wage a war on obesity, unhealthy eating, and activity habits.

Our program addresses all these contributors to overweight and obesity, though not every child is affected by all. Our program is a laser beam focused on the target of health, happiness, and healthy weight. Even for healthy weight members of the family, this does not mean their diet, eating behaviors, or activity patterns are optimal. Some or all of these factors may affect healthy weight members of the family, so participation in the program is beneficial to nearly everyone. If followed, everyone learns healthier eating and activity habits, valuable lifelong tools that are best when taught in childhood. Everyone wins by becoming a more fit, healthier eater!