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Preventing childhood obesity

After spending some time in Somerville, Mass., reporting on their innovative program to prevent childhood obesity, Need to Know came back with some tips on how to make sure your kids reach adulthood at a healthy weight. Here are five things you need to know to create a healthier environment for you and your family:

1. Protect your home from unhealthy influences.

David Ludwing, MD
Director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children’s Hospital, Boston

The home is one environment over which parents have 100 percent control. If it doesn’t support health, don’t bring it into the home. You can go out and have ice cream, make it a celebration once in a while, but remember that if you bring that gallon of ice cream into the home you’re going to fight a losing battle to control its consumption.  And that applies certainly to junk foods, but also influences that make us make kids sedentary. It’s not having wide screen hi-def TV in every room. Maybe have one TV in an out of the way place, but create an active play station.  Or a place where your kids can turn on some music and dance. Let’s make healthy eating and physical activity easy, convenient and fun and make unhealthful lifestyle in the home much less convenient.

2. Make fun, less healthy food choices the exception, not the rule.

Christina Economos, PhD, Associate Professor
Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Tufts University

No question, we don’t want to eliminate fun foods or treat foods. They should be part of [a child’s] diet, but a minority, not the majority.  It’s not eliminating treats and it’s not taking choice away. It’s just reducing the number of times they should be presented with unhealthy choices. It’s difficult for a six year-old to make a healthy choice. They are bombarded with advertising and marketing convincing them that they should be consuming these foods that aren’t good for them.

3.  Be an example to your kids — make healthy choices for yourself.

David Ludwing, MD
Director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children’s Hospital, Boston

Parents can engage in modeling. It’s a powerful influence, especially on young children. The idea there is if you do it, your kids will do it. But the opposite is also true.  If you don’t do it, they won’t do it.  The benefit of working in a family context is that everybody benefits, the obese child is less stigmatized, the parents may reduce their cardiovascular disease risk factors, and even a lean child’s sibling is protected against a future of excessive weight gain.

4. Know when to say no.

Christina Economos, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Tufts University

Be the policymakers in the household. It’s okay to say no. It’s in your child’s best interests to set a policy and stick with it around screen time, around treat time. People wouldn’t question that you don’t want a seven or eight year-old using tobacco. Well they also shouldn’t be consuming junk food all day long, because it will put them at a very high risk for becoming overweight or obese which will compromise their life.

5. Take action in your own community to fight obesity.

Mayor Joe Curtatone
Somerville, Mass.

Don’t wait for the elected official to have a vision.  You carry it.  You drive it.  This is the greatest grass roots effort you can have in your city or town.  And you can get people civically engaged.  It’s about social change.  Much of social change comes from the ground up.