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Diet and Exercise: Treating Childhood Obesity 
by Laurie June 23, 2005

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 13 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were overweight in 1999. That same year, 14 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 were overweight. Many of these children were not only overweight, but actually obese. Obesity is a growing epidemic, and unfortunately children are not immune. In order to avoid the negative physical and emotional consequences that obesity can cause, parents, teachers, and other caregivers must learn how to prevent and treat childhood obesity.

The Medical Problems of Obesity

Obesity can result in a plethora of health problems, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Although these health problems are normally thought to only affect adults, children are susceptible. In recent years, the number of children who suffer from type 2 diabetes has increased substantially, and obesity is the cause. The health problems that children develop can affect them for the rest of their lives. Even if overweight children do not develop health problems in their youth, they are likely to suffer from obesity and related illnesses as adults. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has determined that overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of suffering from weight problems as adults.

The Emotional Problems of Obesity

In addition to the serious health consequences, childhood weight problems can also lead to severe emotional problems. Teasing and bullying are unfortunately common aspects of childhood, and overweight children are especially susceptible. Although some people consider such harassment a normal part of being a kid, the effects can be devastating.

After being mercilessly teased, some children will go to dangerous lengths to lose weight; some will develop anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Other children begin binge eating, causing them to gain even more weight and increase the emotional and physical problems they were already experiencing.

How to Prevent Childhood Obesity

As a parent, teacher, or other caregiver, you should make a conscious effort to prevent childhood obesity. In a world filled with fast food restaurants and soda, this is not always easy. You must provide children with healthy eating choices. Additionally, encourage children to actually want to eat healthy.

If describe junk food as a treat and health food as necessary, children will believe that eating healthily is a chore or even a punishment. Make healthy food the treat; serve children delicious fresh fruit, fresh whole grain bread, and lean meats that they will enjoy. Junk food should be portrayed as inferior, both in taste and nutrition. This should not be too hard to teach since junk food really is inferior. The trick will be demonstrating that you yourself actually prefer health food.

Avoid using food as a reward. This will cause children to eat when they are happy, when they are sad, and eat when they are not at all hungry; this behavior will continue into adulthood. Food is not a reward, and children should be taught to eat only in response to hunger.

Actually, children are naturally very good about eating only when they are hungry; usually, they begin to lose this ability only because adults teach them to always finish their plate and eat special treats whether or not they are already full. Never force children to eat more than they want.

In order to maintain a healthy weight, children also need to exercise. The type of exercise does not matter. Children can ride bikes, skate board, play dance games at the local arcade, play basketball, or do anything else that appeals to them. If your child is not very physically active, you should enroll him or her in a sports organization or class. Even children who are normally quite active will benefit from more structured activities, which will allow them to increase their physical abilities while developing discipline. If your child is more academically minded, remind him or her that high school sports look great on college applications.

Remember that you are a role model. If you are telling children to eat healthy and exercise regularly while you yourself do neither of these things, you advice will probably not be followed. So eat well, enjoy eating well, and work out.

How to Treat Childhood Obesity

If your child has a weight problem, you need to implement the above advice immediately. You should also consult a doctor or nutritionist to develop a healthy eating plan and make sure that no serious health problems have developed. Do not delay action in the hopes that the problem will just go away; in all likelihood, it will only get worse.

As stated, overweight children are likely to suffer from a variety of emotional problems. You need to be careful not to lower their self-esteem further. Do not insult them or criticize them about their weight. Never call them names; they get enough of that at school. Most overweight children are aware of their problem and already want to shed some excess pounds. You just need to help them by developing healthy eating and exercise habits.

You should also try to avoid making this into a weight issue. Children are under enough pressure from the media and their peers to look a certain way. If you encourage them to focus on their weight, their self-esteem will suffer even more and they will be more likely to develop an eating disorder. Instead, focus on health and quality of living. Show them how maintaining a healthy weight will lead to extra energy and fewer health problems. And make sure that they know they are loved no matter what.


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