By Dr. Mercola
In the US, one-third of children aged 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. It’s an epidemic that reaches far beyond US soil, however.
In the documentary Way Beyond Weight, childhood obesity around the globe is explored via interviews with parents, government officials, school representatives, nutrition advocates and the children themselves.
Brazil, where one-third of children are overweight, is highlighted, but other countries, such as Kuwait, are also seeing younger and younger generations struggling with their weight. Though the terrain is significantly different, the underlying causes of childhood obesity appear to be largely the same.
Many Kids Are Hooked on Soda and Sugary Fruit Drinks
Many of the children interviewed for the film said they drink soda every day. Many were also drinking ‘fruit juices,’ some of which contained little, if any, actual fruit juice and hundreds of grams of sugar in a liter.
Parents often believed that the fruit drinks were healthy for their kids, and that is precisely what the manufacturers want them to believe.
As recently reported in the Guardian Express,1 kids are 40 percent heavier today compared to just 25 years ago, and a growing number of studies have linked rising childhood obesity rates to increased consumption of sugary beverages (including those sweetened with no- or low-cal sweeteners).
As a general rule, the beverage industry has denied or strongly downplayed its role in the childhood obesity epidemic, despite the fact that beverage companies spend over $1 billion annually on youth-targeted marketing—especially in school settings.
According to the Guardian Express, 80 percent of American schools have contracts with Coke or Pepsi to stock their products in school vending machines.
It’s an untenable position, really. Clearly, marketing WORKS, or else they wouldn’t be doing it, and when ads target an audience of 2- to 17-year-olds, it’s hardly an accident that kids in that age range opt for soda whenever they’re given a choice.
TV: Letting Food Marketers Into Your Living Room
Marketers have unfettered access to children via advertisements on television. So when your child watches TV, not only are they not engaging in the type of free play that provides exercise and mental stimulation, but they are simultaneously being exposed to strong messages urging them to eat junk food.
Toys, giveaways and movie characters are commonly used to lure kids in, and the messages work so effectively that many kids are actually embarrassed to eat healthy foods in front of their friends.
The documentary reveals that many families see the ability to provide juice boxes and chips as a sign of higher status and the kids may regard salads and vegetables as ‘poor people’ food. One expert even recalled children who would hide in the bathroom at their school to eat a banana, lest their friends seem them eating it.
Junk Foods May Be Cheaper, Easier to Access
For some families, access to fruits and vegetables is very limited, forcing them to rely on the processed foods at their local markets. Others realize that they can get a value meal at numerous fast-food restaurants for far less money than it takes to purchase foods to make a healthy meal for their family.
The proliferation of junk food extends even into school cafeterias, where children are further exposed to supposed ‘healthy’ meals that are actually comprised of processed meats and other concoctions with very limited, or no, whole foods.
Unfortunately, some parents are also unaware that feeding their kids fast-food meals is like feeding them a chemistry experiment, or they are simply lured in by the low prices and tasty (albeit artificial and addictive) flavors. Many fall victim to the food industry’s misleading ads, as well, believing that the foods they sell are wholesome when in actuality they’re little more than sugar and essential toxic additives. Around the globe, there were similar reasons behind children’s poor eating habits and subsequent obesity:
- Not believing the junk food is harming their children
- Battling with a picky eater and believing it’s better for your child to eat something, even if it’s unhealthy
- Parents eating junk foods and role modeling this behavior to their kids
- Giving in to kids’ demands for unhealthy foods to keep them ‘happy’
- Lack of access to healthy foods, or lack of education about which foods are truly healthy
Is Your Child Overweight? Try These Top 5 Solutions
1. Replace Sugary Juices and Soft Drinks with Pure Water
Children can easily cut down on the amount of sugar they eat by eliminating soda and juice and only drinking water. This step alone can have a dramatic effect on your child’s weight and health, since every daily soft drink or sugar-sweetened beverage consumed increases the risk of obesity by a whopping 60 percent.
2. Offer Plenty of Whole Foods
It’s important for parents to encourage their children to eat healthy, nutritious foods, focusing on fresh whole foods (preferably organic whenever possible). This does not mean you should not allow your child to eat when he’s hungry, however. Children need calories and nutrients to grow and develop -- just make sure to encourage healthy foods and bypass junk and processed foods.
Remember that any meal or snack high in carbohydrates or sugars generates a rapid rise in your child’s blood glucose level. To adjust for this rise, the pancreas secretes insulin into their bloodstream, which lowers glucose (sugar) levels. Insulin is essentially a storage hormone, which is used to store the excess calories from carbohydrates in the form of fat.
Insulin, stimulated by excess carbohydrates in over consumption of grains, starches and sweets, is responsible for your overweight child’s bulging tummy and fat rolls. Even worse, high insulin levels suppress two other important hormones -- glucagons and growth hormones -- that are responsible for burning fat and sugar and promoting muscle development, respectively. So insulin from excess carbohydrates promotes fat, and then wards off your body's ability to lose that fat.
3. Decrease or Eliminate TV and Screen Time and Remove the TV from Your Child’s Bedroom
TV is often a destructive influence on children. As mentioned, not only does it encourage inactivity, but it also exposes them to commercials promoting worthless foods. Just as you don’t want your child exposed to ads for cigarettes during Saturday morning cartoons, neither should your kids be bombarded by non-stop commercials for sugary foods and snacks. Alternatively, you can implement a rule that allows your child one minute of video (TV or game) time for every minute of exercise. Or, join millions of families that use services like Netflix primarily because you choose each piece of media you or your child watches and it is always advertisement free.
4. Increase Exercise
Exercise is extremely important for all children. Your overweight or obese child needs at least 30 minutes of activity a day, which should ideally include some higher intensity activities (such as sprinting after your dog or playing a game of tag). Any activity that gets your child up and away from the television set, video game or computer is a good idea. Encourage physical activity that you can do together as a family, such as bike rides, hikes or a family game of softball.
5. Help Your Child Address Emotional Eating
Emotions play a major role in childhood obesity and often, weight loss efforts get sabotaged by emotional eating. Your child may also feel depressed or anxious about their weight, adding to the vicious cycle. And, sugar is highly addictive, making giving up soda, sweets and carbs difficult even for adults.
This is where the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) comes in. EFT can be profoundly helpful in alleviating not only food cravings, but also the underlying emotional challenges, such as low self-esteem, that can lead your child to eat unhealthy food or overeat.
More Tips for Creating a Healthy Eating Environment for Kids
Ultimately, teaching your child the importance of healthy foods and exercise is the key to maintaining health. With that in mind, after watching the documentary, here are some tips to foster a healthy view of food and self-esteem in your child.
- Lead by example and seek to maintain optimal body weight for yourself and your spouse
- Refrain from making jokes about your child’s weight, even if no harm is intended
- Explain the health risks of being overweight to your child, but avoid comparing your overweight child to other children, including thinner siblings
- Cook healthy meals for your family, and let your child be involved in making dinner, but avoid making your child eat different food than the rest of the family
- Encourage your child to make healthy food choices and praise them when they do instead of putting your child down about weight or eating habits
- Instead of using food as a reward or punishment, have healthy snacks available at all times, and explain to your child the benefits they’ll get from eating these fresh, whole foods; use non-food items, such as stickers or special outings/activities as rewards instead
If you need more help getting your family on the right track, my nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feed your family right, and I encourage you to read through it now. You can find even more help in the book I wrote on the subject, Generation XL: Raising Healthy, Intelligent Kids in a High-Tech, Junk-Food World.