For school-age kids, maintaining a healthy weight is as important as earning good grades -- maybe more so. That's because overweight children and teens may struggle with issues that are more stressful than pop quizzes and too much homework. Many develop poor self-esteem, negative body image, depression, and a lifetime of serious health problems, says Jill Castle, a registered dietitian, author, and childhood nutrition expert.
Childhood obesity is a growing issue. About 1 in 3 American kids and teens are overweight or obese -- nearly triple the rate in 1963. These children develop health problems that doctors didn't used to see until adulthood: type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. Too much weight at young ages has been linked to higher rates of early death in adulthood.
As the school year begins, Castle advises parents to do their homework when it comes to establishing healthy eating routines and expectations.
She says one of the best practices parents can adopt is structure. "Encourage your kids to eat breakfast regardless of their age," she suggests. "Eating breakfast every morning sets hunger and fullness cycles into motion. Often, kids skip breakfast, and teens either skip or go very light on lunch, too -- and then come home starving. This leads to their eating everything in sight and making poor choices later on."
Regular meal and snack times keep children satiated so they're less likely to overindulge when it truly is time to eat. "Make sure to feed your kids a balance of lean proteins, carbohydrates, including whole grains, and healthy fats," Castle says.
No food should be off-limits, she believes, not even fast food or occasional sweets. "Instead, incorporate treats with balance. For instance, allow fast food no more than once or twice per week." Kids who are overly controlled are not good at self-regulating; they simply seek out the banned items at friends' houses. "Your job is to teach them a healthy attitude toward food," Castle says. "Don't shame them."
In addition to structure and balance, Castle reminds parents to offer clear guidance: "I find that many parents aren't having 'the conversation' with their children. Many will pack a lunch. Few actually say, 'I expect you to eat your sandwich and fruit before you eat the cookies.'"
But eating right is only one part of maintaining a healthy weight. "Kids require a full hour of vigorous, sweaty exercise every day, with their heart rates up," Castle says. "It can accumulate across gym, recess, and sports," but make sure your children get the full 60 minutes, even on weekends.