New Studies Give Us 4 Ideas for Fighting Childhood Obesity

When it comes to fighting childhood obesity, what we really need are some practical ideas. By practical ideas I mean ones that families can implement easily, without spending money or missing work or having big arguments with the kids. The latest edition of the journal Pediatrics has not just one but four practical ideas.

One third of the children and adolescents in the United States are overweight or obese. That’s staggering—and has staggering implications for their future health and the future health of our country. To really take on childhood obesity we will need to take on our sedentary, “super-size” lifestyle, economic disparities and political issues like grain subsidies…but every fight has to begin somewhere, and when it comes to kids, home is a really good place to begin.

Here’s what the studies said:

First, Boston Children’s David Bickham, PhD, Emily Blood, PhD, Lydia Shrier, MD and Michael Rich, MD, from the Center on Media and Child Health showed that when it comes to media in the life of young adolescents, what seems to increase the risk of obesity is really watching TV. I mean just that: really watching it. Having it on in the background, while not great for other reasons, didn’t raise the risk as much—nor did video games or other kinds of screen time. There are many reasons this could be true, such as exposure to the commercials for unhealthy food, or the simple fact that they were sitting instead of exercising, or that families that are stressed or poor (which raises the risk of obesity) are more likely to let their kids watch more TV. But whatever the reason…

Idea No. 1: Limit the amount of time your child spends actively watching TV

Second, researchers did an experiment with first-graders in an elementary school in Philadelphia. They gave some of them adult-sized plates, and some of them kid-sized plates (about the size of salad plates), and let the kids serve themselves lunch. What they found was not all that surprising: The kids with the bigger plates served themselves more and ate more calories. This makes remarkable sense and is something simple we could implement without too much trouble…

Idea No. 2: Give your child a smaller plate

Third, researchers from Greece read all the studies they could find done before October 2011 that looked at whether how often kids ate affected their weight. What they found was a bit surprising: eating more frequently seemed to help keep kids at a healthier weight, at least in boys. The explanation isn’t really clear, but it’s intriguing. It’s certainly true that going long periods of time between meals or snacks isn’t a good idea when it comes to managing weight. It can slow your metabolism—and probably more importantly, when you are really hungry it can make you eat more—and can make it harder to make healthy food choices. So even though we don’t completely understand the findings of this study…

Idea No. 3: Teach your child to eat healthy foods regularly throughout the day

The last study looked at the sleep habits of more than 1,000 high-school students in suburban Philadelphia and found that getting more sleep was associated with a lower BMI (body mass index, the measure we use to see if someone’s weight is healthy), especially among heavier students. The researchers estimated that going from 7.5 to 10 hours of sleep a night (which is what’s recommended for adolescents) could lower the rate of obesity by 4 percent. Not huge, but since sleep is important for all sorts of reasons…

Idea No. 4:  Make sure your child gets enough sleep

Like I said, none of these ideas is going to make childhood obesity go away. But they are simple, straightforward ways to start—and they all start at home, which is where children learn their first and usually most important life lessons.

I say we give them a try.