Preventing early childhood obesity

April 4, 2008
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The number of obese children between the ages of 2 and 5 in the US has more than doubled over the past 30 years. During childhood, these children are at risk for bone and joint problems, diabetes, sleep apnea and psychological issues related to poor body image and social isolation. As adults, they are 10 times more likely than their normal-weight peers to be obese and to contend with more health problems, including stroke, heart disease, cancer and osteoarthritis.

The key to preventing obesity in the early years is in teaching habits that promote physical health. The essentials are diet and exercise.

Young children do not purchase food and so do not have control over what they eat. It is, therefore, the responsibility of adults to offer nutritious foods and balanced meals. A young child’s nutritional intake should be comprised of 50-60 percent carbohydrate, 15-20 percent protein and 25-30 percent fat. Because fat is denser in calories, eating too much of it can lead to excessive weight gain. Portion control is important with all foods but especially with fatty ones. For snacks, rather than potato chips, French fries or cookies, a child should be given foods high in fiber and water content, such as fruits and vegetables. These contain important nutrients and give a feeling of fullness with fewer calories.

Children need 60 minutes of exercise a day. Particularly in an urban setting, with limited space for safe play, young children often spend an inordinate amount of time sedentary. It is up to parents and caregivers to create opportunities for physical activity, which need not take place all at once, but can be spread throughout the day. A walk to the grocery store and back in the morning, a session of jumping jacks in the afternoon, and a round of “Simon Says” in the evening could, combined, add up to a day’s worth of exercise.

As a general rule, a child under the age of 6 cannot become obese unless aided by adults caring for him or her. By establishing healthy routines early in a child’s life, adults help to ensure that he or she will grow into a healthy adult.

Janet Rose
Boston

The writer is a registered dietitian and director of nutrition and food services at Associated Early Care and Education, a nonprofit agency committed to giving Greater Boston’s children in need, from birth to age 5, the opportunity to reach their full potential by investing in school readiness, healthy development and strengthening families. Associated operates an early education and care center in the Bromley-Heath Housing Development. The family Child Care Project also includes some provider homes in JP. According to the most recent census, about 74 children who live in JP are in Associated’s programs.