Questions & Answers
1. Why do some overweight children and adolescents think they are of normal size?
Sometimes children and their parents do not realize they are overweight. About 16 percent of children and adolescents are overweight, and this number is increasing. As more children and adults become overweight, our idea about what is normal changes and we begin to think excessive weight is acceptable. It is important that children be aware of how to live healthy and fun lives while also making sure they remain a healthy weight. Speak to your doctor about suggestions for teaching children how to live healthy and active lives.
2. What can parents do to minimize the risk of obesity in their children?
It is important that parents make sure their kids are healthy, and the best way to do this is to lead by example. Exercise and eating healthy foods are key. To encourage your children to eat well-balanced diets, try to make dinner with plenty of fruits, vegetables and lean protein, such as chicken and fish. Make sure your kids are eating healthy snacks instead of junk food and high-calorie soft drinks. Also, make sure they are getting plenty of physical activity (at least one hour a day). Instead of watching TV, playing video games or surfing the Internet, encourage your kids to go for a walk or play in a safe place.
3. How often should a child exercise to help maintain a healthy weight?
Just like adults, all children should engage in physical activity. Children from 6 to 17 years of age need at least one hour of moderate physical activity a day. This doesn’t mean they have to take part in formal sports — everything from chores around the house, playing outside and going for a bike ride are examples of physical activity. The best way to make sure your children are getting enough exercise is to set an example. Instead of morning cartoons, take your child out for a walk or a day at the beach. Try not to focus on your child’s weight, but instead that they are living healthy and having fun.
4. If a child is overweight, does that mean he or she is unhealthy?
Not necessarily. It is important to not become too preoccupied with your child’s numerical weight—but it is something you should be aware of. Your pediatrician can calculate your child’s body mass index, or BMI, an indicator of healthy weight. Instead, we should focus on overall health. Weight is one part of being healthy, but it is not the whole story. Being healthy means eating a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit and engaging in regular physical activity — playing outside, soccer practice, helping with chores around the house. Make sure your kids are eating regular healthy meals and staying active.
6. Is it possible to control or reverse type 2 diabetes in an overweight child or adolescent through lifestyle changes?
Type 2 diabetes arises when our body no longer responds to insulin. Insulin, a special hormone we produce, acts like a key, unlocking a special door in our cells so that sugar can enter and be used to make energy. Diabetes — once considered a disease of adults — is more common in heavy children and teens. Diabetes is a complicated disease that does not really go away, but can be controlled. If your child has diabetes, then it is important that he or she is eating healthy and balanced meals and engaging in physical activity to keep their blood sugar levels and weight under control. Speak to your child’s pediatrician about which food choices and how much exercise may be right for your diabetic child.
7. Why is breakfast such an important meal for a child?
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day for everyone. Even though it is the most important meal, up to 40 percent of kids don’t eat breakfast. After a long night of sleep with no food, our bodies are running low on fuel in the morning. Kids who eat breakfast are shown to do better in school, are more alert, have fewer nurse visits and keep their weight under control. So why aren’t more kids eating breakfast? Well, everyone is rushed in the mornings. But remember, a healthy breakfast can be quick and easy, like low-fat yogurt with fruit, peanut butter on whole wheat bread, instant oatmeal or half a bagel with fruit or cheese.
Marina C. Cervantes of the Disparities Solutions Center participated in the preparation of these responses.
Joseph R. Betancourt, M.D.
Director of the Disparities Solutions Center, Massachusetts General Hospital