Written By Dr. Nancy Heath
Program Director, Child and Family Development at American Public University
The number of overweight kids, even preschoolers, has climbed dramatically in the past 30 years. Parents, researchers, and healthcare providers have been looking for an approach that will address this looming problem but, so far, the results are disappointing. The fix for our childhood obesity problem appears to be multi-faceted and painfully elusive.
We can identify an array of culprits, such as too much sedentary time, a diet loaded in fat and sugar, and too little physical activity. Furthermore, we know that it impacts kids in low-income areas harder than their more affluent peers. Let’s look at each of these issues a little more closely.
Children today spend a great deal of their day engaged in screen time. TV used to be the primary culprit and it is still a big part of the problem. However, the lure of screen time has expanded even further with kids’ use of mobile technology.
Screen time exposes children to a range of unhealthy influences. Sitting still for hours, day after day, looking at a screen is in itself a big factor in the rise of childhood obesity. However, there are additional problems that kids encounter during screen time. Research has shown that both kids and adults find that sitting in front of a screen is an ideal time to snack. Reaching for that bag of chips or cookies is a lot easier than getting up to cook a meal or even peel an orange. Additionally, TV programs are notorious for the junk food advertising that accompanies them. Kids who see these ads often influence parents to buy the unhealthy food that is convenient to consume during screen time.
Even if we as a culture could implement polices to limit kids’ screen time, it’s not clear the obesity problem would be solved. Several studies have shown that when kids turn off their screens, they don’t start doing jumping jacks. Budget cuts have frequently resulted in the elimination of physical education programs in schools, at a time when they are needed more than ever. Lower income children often live in areas where it is not safe to play outdoors. As Michelle Obama points out so well in her well-publicized “Let’s Move” campaign, today’s kids need more physical exercise than they are getting.
Finally, let’s address the issue of family traditions. Two family traditions or behaviors seem to help protect kids from becoming overweight, and both behaviors are fading from American culture. The first is family mealtimes. A child who participates in regular, planned, family dinner times is much less likely to be overweight than his peers who skip this tradition. Secondly, short sleep duration is associated with increased obesity in children especially among younger age groups and boys. Like the tradition of family mealtimes, family rules about bedtimes can help children get the sleep they need, but many modern families cannot provide the supervision necessary to enforce such rules. Both of these family patterns are fading faster in poorer families, and especially in single-parent households.
Recent research has shown that kids who regularly eat the evening meal with a family, have limited screen time, and get adequate sleep are about 40 percent less likely than their peers to be obese. Unfortunately, many modern families, especially low income ones, will find these guidelines difficult to implement in their homes. The social and healthcare costs of overweight kids will overwhelm us in the years to come unless we find ways to better support our schools, parents, and our kids in this critical fight.
About the Author:
Nancy Heath holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and Family Studies and works as Program Director for the Child and Family Development program at American Public University. She is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist and a Disaster Mental Health volunteer for the Red Cross.