By Dr. Chris Smeltzer
No one likes to talk about weight or change. I offer no guilt slinging here. Studies of healthy habits in kids show that following these habits are associated with individuals who have and maintain a healthy weight. These healthy habits in kids only begin with consistent modeling by their parents. Start with small changes to work toward these goals. Have fun. Persevere.
0 sweetened drinks a day
That’s not very much is it? Studies show that soda, juice, and even “sports drink” consumption is significantly associated with unhealthy weight in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding until age one year, whole milk until age two years, and low-fat milk (skim, 1% or 2%) after that. Water is great after six to nine months of age to include with milk. There is a big push to remove all sweetened drinks from kids’ diets. Sure, they will have some here and there (read Grandmom’s house), but kids with healthy weight tend to have NO significant intake of juice, soda, sweet tea, “sports drinks” or other sweetened beverages. Sugar triggers a reward center in the brain that quickly requires more and more intake to obtain the same feeling of reward. Interestingly, recent studies show that artificial sweeteners have the same brain effect causing an increased consumption of other sugars to trigger this “brain reward.” Water and low-fat milk. There is our first goal to work toward.
1 hour of exercise per day
More than one hour is great, but gradually work toward one hour a day if you aren’t there yet. Kids need an example and often a partner to exercise. I define exercise for kids as body movement that increases their heart rate, gets them sweaty, and causes them to breathe harder. Standing on first base for half an hour in a Little League game often doesn’t cut it. Rake up a pile of leaves and have a blast with your kids running, jumping, and throwing leaves. While watching a football game on TV (often longer than three hours) my boys and I will sometimes have a little competition. When my team is on offense, my son has to do a push-up for every rushing yard my team gains and sit-ups equal to the number of yards for each pass play. Exercise is to be completed before the next play. When his team is on offense it is my time to exercise. Stats at halftime and the end of the game will show you how many sit-ups and push-ups you did. There is certainly no time to sit there and eat chips. Make exercise fun and build toward an hour a day.
2 hours of recreational screen time per day
TV, videos, movies, games, computers, phone—screens are everywhere. For kids, as screen-time for entertainment increases so does the risk of unhealthy weight. It might be great, however, to use screen-time as a reward for meeting some of the goals mentioned here, especially exercise. For some families this is a really tough change. Kids rebel. Your spouse complains. Often the addiction fades as other fun activities like cooking and playing together begin to replace times of boredom that kids will fill with a screen.
3 small meals and small snacks a day
The trick here is to not get hungry. In most of our diets hunger is followed by overeating. We feel like we deserve a dessert because we didn’t eat breakfast. Six small feeding times a day is associated with healthier weight when the focus is on fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meats. Fewer carbs is almost always a good path to follow. Find ways to decrease bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and doughy sugary items like cakes and cookies. Make breakfast a priority. Eat breakfast daily and try to continue the day with small snacks and meals to avoid hunger and avoid the increased calorie intake that often follows hunger.
4 meals to prepare and eat together as a family per week (at least!)
Try to find small tasks for your kids to perform in meal preparation. Having a hand in meal prep leads to an increased willingness in kids to taste new things. When they have had a part in making the meal, they are much more likely to try those nasty Brussel sprouts you have wanted them to eat. And mealtime, try to make it fun. Do not use mealtime to grill your teenage son about his day. Remember, less eye contact and fewer questions usually leads to a better conversation with teenagers. A game of “Would You Rather” or conversation starter cards might be a fun way for a family not used to eating together at the table to begin. Start with baby steps. Work to end the meal on a high note. Don’t push the conversation to a point where everyone gets mad.
5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day
A serving of fruit or veggies for kids is the size of the individual child’s fist. This is a hard one for some kids. It is hardest for those kids whose parents don’t like fruits or vegetables. Get creative here. I don’t believe in tricking kids. Don’t lie to them about what they are eating. Join in the fun with them. An apple slice with 2 blueberries for eyes stuck on with a dollop of yogurt—who wouldn’t want to bite Mr. Apple’s face off. Recently, I saw some crazy cute penguins on the internet made out of olives, carrots and feta cheese. I have never eaten penguin before, but these, I would try. A mom of one of my patients has her kids take a “No thank you bite” of new foods. A quick bite and a shriek of “No Thank You!” often does the trick to introduce a child to a new taste.
Please don’t make all these changes for your family at once. Start small and gradually increase the change. Meet resistance with humor and perseverance. I encourage my patients to #GAG which is our lingo for Get A Goal. Find something to work toward. Take small steps forward each day to make your goal a reality. Set up a reward for yourself and your family for meeting the goal. Don’t wish for healthy habits, plan for them.