The body mass index measures body fat based on the difference between a person’s weight in kilograms and their height squared in meters. Though every kid develops height and weight at their own pace, weight growth can outstrip height growth in an unhealthy way, signalling potential health issues. Those potential long-term effects are why parents need to keep an eye on kids with an upward trend in their BMIs. It is also why they need to engage in nutritional introspection. After all, keeping obesity at bay shouldn’t require more than doing what families should be doing anyway: eating and playing together every day.
“If you have a child who’s been consistently in the 50th percentile, which would be average, and is now at the 75th percentile, that’s a child who the pediatrician and the parent should start to pay more close attention to,” says American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Dr. Stephen Daniels. It’s also a good sign that everyone in the home probably needs to change their habits.
Essentially, explains Daniels, the issue of obesity is all about the balance of calories. That is, how many are consumed and how many are burned. But addressing those two areas is about building healthy habits, family wide. Attacking obesity requires a concerted effort to both increase activity and decreasing calories over the long run. No crash diets or pills. Especially for kids.
On the calorie front the battle is about following nutritional guidelines like getting five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and zero sodas, sports drinks, and sugar sweetened beverages. But there are other ways to wrangle calories that are a little less obvious. Family dinners, for instance, are a good way for families to pay attention what going into everyone’s bodies.
“Having the whole family sit down to a dinner that’s organized well in terms of the balance of food and portion sizes, and including conversation, is a good thing,” Daniels says. “This is part of building a routine for the family.”
But parents don’t need to go crazy with trying to get their kid to eat during the dinner. “If the parents allow their kids to make mealtimes a battle ground, they lose almost every time,” Daniels says. One way to help get kids involved rather than on the defensive is to offer them a limited range of healthy options of fruits or vegetable that will be at the table. That they way they can feel like they’ve made a choice while keeping the meal healthy.
There are some less obvious ideas about fighting obesity on the activity side on the activity side as well. Who would have thought, for instance, it could be battled during sleep.
“You want kids to develop good sleep hygiene: going to bed at a good time not having televisions on in their room,” Daniels explains. “Increasingly we realize that appropriate sleep seems to play a role in creating a healthy lifestyle as well.”
Beyond that, the activity advice will be pretty familiar. Daniels encourages parents to limit television and video games to two hours or less per day. Simultaneously, kids should be getting an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. That’s not all in a single hour. It can, in fact, be six ten-minute games of tag as long as it looks like they’ve been working.
“What you want is that they’re getting a little short of breath, and getting a little red in the face, and they’re sweating and really creating some exertion,” Daniels says. But adds, “It really ought to be something the child likes. Parents have to find out what the child enjoys doing and support that, but recognize that it can change over time.”
It’s even better if the parent joins in. After all Daniels notes, there are way too many sedentary parents in America as well. And kids love getting active with their mom and dad. Just don’t think of it as exercise.