DEAR DOCTOR K:
My 9-year-old son is very overweight. I don’t want to make a big deal about his eating habits, because I assume he’ll grow out of his obesity later in life, and because we already set so many rules for him to follow. Do you agree?
I wish I could, but I can’t. A child’s eating habits, and weight, can adversely affect his or her health later in life. The healthy eating habits you set with young kids not only influence their eating habits later in life, they also influence the chemistry of your kids’ bodies so they are less likely to get fat as adults.
All the talk about childhood obesity is not just media hype. The number of children who are overweight or obese is increasing at an alarming rate. These kids are at much higher risk for developing serious health problems as adults — high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Not only that: They’re even at increased risk for developing “adult” diseases when they’re still children. A growing number of obese kids are developing the condition that used to be called “adult onset” diabetes (better called Type 2 diabetes). When I was a medical student, you rarely saw people with that disease who were younger than 50. Today, you see it in teenagers who have been obese since early childhood.
Kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years typically need between 1,500 and 2,000 calories per day, from a variety of healthy foods. An average day’s diet should look like this:
- Grains (preferably whole grains): 6 servings
- Vegetables: 2 to 3 servings
- Fruits: 2 to 3 servings
- Dairy: 2 servings
- Meats (mainly poultry and fish), beans, nuts or eggs: 2 servings
Growing young children who are able to eat solid food usually need to eat every two to three hours. In addition to three meals, most children need mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. Be sure to offer healthy snacks:
- Fresh and dried fruits
- Vegetables with low-fat dip
- Yogurt and low-fat milk
- Whole-grain bread, whole-grain crackers, unsalted whole-wheat pretzels
- Peanut butter, hummus, bean dip
By age 5, all children should be following the same heart-healthy diet as you. That’s right, by age 5. You know the drill:
- Switch to low-fat or nonfat milk and reduced-fat cheese and yogurt.
- Limit fried foods.
- Have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on hand. Serve them for snacks rather than cookies, chips, ice cream or other high-fat foods.
- Avoid soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks. They are a major contributor to weight gain.
Regular exercise is no less important than a healthy diet in preventing childhood obesity, and it is also beneficial to a child’s overall health. It almost surely reduces the risk for Type 2 diabetes, for example.
Finally, don’t forget to set a good example for your son. He’s unlikely to reach for carrot sticks if you’re snacking on cookies.
(This column is an update of one that ran originally in July 2012.)