Health 

Prevent Child Obesity With This Practical Advice

September 12, 2020 6 min read

Fruit sitting on a countertop

Dr. Eric Wood, ND, MA

Being overweight or underweight can both pose their share of problems. This is no different for children. In today’s environment of superabundance, however, the former is becoming much more common due to a variety of reasons. In this article, I’ll explore some of the most common contributors to this epidemic and what we, as parents and providers, can do to help turn it around.

Beware of sugary beverages

A lot of beverages marketed towards children (and adults for that matter) are loaded with added or natural sugars and not a lot of micronutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, etc.). Over time, these calorie-laden beverages add up and can contribute to significant weight gain. They include drinks like

  • Sodas (yes, even diet soda!)
  • Juice boxes, particularly those with added sugar or corn syrup
  • ‘Energy drinks’ like Gatorade and Red Bull
  • Juice concentrates
  • ‘Coffee drinks’ from Starbucks and other similar places, which can contain over 600 calories in a single cup!

In general, it's better to drink herbal teas, water, fresh-pressed juices (which retain more of their nutrients) and seltzer waters. Homemade smoothies can also be a good choice for bolstering your child’s nutritional intake!

Smoothie with fruits in the background

Watch out for sneaky sugar traps

There are so many ways food manufacturers sneak sugar into our diets and sadly this applies to many popular children’s foods as well. From formula to breakfast cereals, ketchup, mayo, chicken nuggets and even bread, you must become an expert in recognizing when sugar is snuck into food and the many words that can be used to ‘hide’ sugar or confuse the reader.

Nowadays, there are over 60 names manufacturers use for versions of sugar that sneak into the diet (1). While they won’t all fit into this list, these are the top 10 most common types of sugar to minimize and watch out for:

  • Glucose syrup
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Sugar
  • Fructose
  • Maltose
  • Evaporated cane juice or cane juice crystals
  • Brown sugar
  • Maltodextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Invert sugar

It’s important to know that in general, when carbohydrates are overconsumed, especially refined sugars, they are turned into fat in the body, contributing to weight gain. Paying attention to and minimizing sugar intake can significantly help to reduce child obesity and weight gain struggles.

Artificial sweeteners are not harmless

What many individuals don’t realize is that while artificial sweeteners may be calorie-free, they are often not without negative repercussions. Studies have shown that multiple kinds may contribute to spiking insulin and/or blood sugar levels and more cravings for sugary foods, leading many people to reach for them later and overeat (2).

Additionally, there are concerns with artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame indicating they may be linked to other health problems such as GI issues, cancer and more (3).

It’s best to stick to just a few sweeteners if you must. Below is my shortlist of better, safer choices to enjoy in moderation. These include

  • Stevia
  • Monk fruit
  • Xylitol or erythritol (make sure it is organic/non-GMO)
  • Small amounts of molasses or pure honey

Many of these sweeteners can go a long way and you only need a small amount to get an equivalent ‘sweetness’ level compared to sugar. So really, it’s a win-win! The first three bullets in the list above are also calorie-free, which is a bonus for those concerned with helping their children maintain a healthy weight.

Get moving!

Compared with kids from several generations ago, many of today’s kids are getting a small fraction of the exercise they used to (4). This, coupled with poor eating habits, is a losing equation for weight gain. At this stage of their lives, it’s simple: encourage your kids to get outside and play! This can be riding bikes, playing ball games, running around at recess, playing on the playground, going for walks in nature with friends and family, swimming and many other possibilities.

Research suggests that children are spending, on average, more than eight hours a day in front of screens (i.e. TVs, computers, etc.) and with the recent Covid-19 events, that number has likely increased.

It’s so important that we all get moving and maintain activity in our daily lives. Our bodies will thank us for it and so will our waistlines!

Child playing on a tire swing

Moderate stress

As kids are getting older, practitioners are increasingly seeing the negative effects of stress showing up in multiple ways. One of these ways is weight gain. Whether this is due to overeating, lack of activity, stress eating, cortisol (i.e. the stress hormone) spikes or other reasons, it’s important that we recognize that excess stress is something as parents and providers we must protect our children from.

That’s why it’s so important to set limits for your children when it comes to extracurricular activities, demands and overscheduling. There is such a thing as ‘too much,’ in adults and children alike. An increasing number of children are now falling victim to conditions previously associated with adults such as heart disease, diabetes type II, metabolic syndrome and more (5).

These are all lifestyle-linked illnesses and as a result, they require lifestyle solutions. Thus, we come back to the guiding principles of good eating, moderation in the lifestyle and staying active!

Increase vegetables, nuts and seeds in the diet

Nowadays, many kids struggle to meet the recommended intake of fresh veggies and fruit, especially vegetables. Yet vegetables, as a food class, are the most nutrient-dense, low-calorie food out there. Instead, children are loading up on highly processed, low-nutrient and high-carb foods like french fries, pizzas, burgers, chips and snack bars. These foods offer little in nutritional value but provide an overabundance of carbohydrate calories that end up getting turned to fat.

It’s critical to get enough veggies into your child’s diet and thankfully there are so many ways to do it. Fresh salads, “green” smoothies with some spinach or kale added in, homemade soups or stews, chopped veggies and hummus and even seaweed snacks, which happen to be our one-year-old daughter’s favorite! Getting a high-quality, organic greens powder can be a second-best option if you have a finicky child and you have to find ways to ‘sneak in’ veggies into a smoothie or other drink.

If children learn to love ‘real food’ from a young age, they’re generally more willing to continue eating those foods as they get older. That said, I’ve seen parents successfully get their middle-school and teenage children to start incorporating more veggies into their diet successfully.

Seeds are also nutritional powerhouses that can help to curb hunger and provide ample nutrition. Making homemade trail mix with pumpkin and sunflower seeds and flaked coconut is a great start. Incorporating ground flax, chia and hemp seeds into a smoothie or soup is another simple way to implement them in the diet.

Packed with fiber, micronutrients, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and more, nuts and seeds are inexpensive, health-promoting foods that even go well in various homemade baked goods! For that matter, so can certain veggies. Carrot muffins or zucchini muffins can be nutritious and delicious with minimal sweeteners and can even include some of these powerhouse seeds. With the abundance of paleo, keto and gluten-free recipes online for free, it’s easier than ever to find a recipe or two that you and your family love and that serves your health.

In summary

Weight gain and obesity in children have many causes. Fortunately, in many cases, it is easier to resolve than it is for older adults. Typically, hormonal issues are not big players in child obesity in contrast with many adults, especially for those over 35. That said, there are still many contributing factors to obesity for kids. Thankfully, there are just as many (if not more) ways that you can help your child reduce their weight if they are struggling.

Simple guiding principles of having kids consume more whole foods, reduce calorie-laden beverages, increase veggie intake, pay attention to and moderate stress and get more activity will help the majority of children move towards a healthier weight. Talking with your pediatrician or physician about appropriate weight ranges for your child given their age, height and build can also help give you context if you’re unsure what a ‘healthy weight’ is for their size and age.

Do your children a favor and help them correct poor habits now before they start to catch up with them as they age. They are our most precious resource as well as our future!