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Preventing Obesity in Children and Teens

Have you ever wondered how obesity plays a role in your child’s overall wellbeing and what behavior changes they can adopt to promote a more healthy lifestyle? Obesity is oftentimes related to other health-related issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, and can even affect one’s oral health. There are several ways to prevent obesity that are safe, effective, and that will inherently help improve other aspects of your child’s health as well.

When learning how to prevent obesity, the first step is to discern the difference between obesity and overweight. A child is considered obese when their body mass index (BMI) is at or above the 95th percentile for other children of the same age and sex. And unfortunately, as noted by the American Heart Association, obesity in children is a growing problem. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity in children aged 6 to 11 years old increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 18.4% in 2016, while obesity in adolescents aged 12 to 19 years old increased from 5% to 20.6% over that same period.

The CDC has also reported that, as obesity has become more common among children and adolescents, incidents of tooth decay have also risen, thus suggesting a link between dental health and weight. While we can't make a simple claim that a singular health condition like obesity causes tooth decay or periodontal disease, research compiled by the International Journal of Dentistry confirms they similar risk factors.

Medications for high blood pressure, often taken by people who struggle with obesity, have some side effects that can negatively affect their oral health. According to the ADA, the most common side effects of these medications are dry mouth and overgrowth of the gums (gingival hyperplasia), causing plaque to get trapped beneath. Both side effects can lead to periodontal disease and cavities.

How to Prevent Childhood and Teenage Obesity

The first step toward managing your child's obesity is to see a healthcare professional who can determine if your child is obese rather than afflicted by a medical condition. Parents should never begin to restrict caloric intake based on their child's appearance before seeing a healthcare professional because an over-restricted diet may prevent normal growth and development.

The following list of recommendations by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is for parents to help their child or teenager manage a healthy weight once they have been diagnosed with obesity:

  • Help your child change their eating habits by creating a routine and learning to eat more slowly.
  • Plan out portions and make sure fewer calories are consumed.
  • Limit snacking and focus on well-rounded meals.
  • Plan meals and make more nutritious food selections.
  • Eat meals together as a family instead of in front of the television or computer.
  • Learn what your child eats at school and how it fits into your plan for their whole day of nutrition and caloric intake.
  • Encourage physical activity (even walking more helps!) and incorporate more activity into their lifestyle.
  • Enroll them in a weight-management program.
  • Don't use food as a reward.
  • Help your child enroll in a support group.

Here's a deep dive into the top three lifestyle changes from the above list:

Change Eating Habits and Develop a Routine

There are several behavioral and lifestyle changes that can effectively promote long-term healthy habits, especially instilling good eating habits for children. A vital step to take when helping your child manage obesity is to set concrete meal times for your family to sit down and eat together. Dinner is an excellent meal for everyone to convene, and breakfast is as well, especially since research has shown that kids who eat breakfast may do better in school.

Eating meals prepared at home is also a great way to control the types and amounts of food a child consumes, and you don't have to do it alone. Having your children help choose a consistent time each day to sit down together and plan meals to cook, incorporating items they like will help them feel invested in the choices and influence their daily routine.

Control Portions and Consume Fewer Calories

It can be challenging when your child develops strong likes and dislikes to certain foods very early in life, but it's natural. This challenge presents you with an opportunity to find fun and creative ways to make their favorite meals healthier! A diet created to combat obesity is also a diet that is good for your child's overall health. Provide plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, make water the "go-to" drink at every meal rather than soda or other sugary drinks, and only go out to eat on special occasions. Meals prepared at restaurants tend to have much higher fat, carbohydrate, and salt content, as well as enormous portions, as compared to meals you have control of at home. You can read further information about how to make food for healthy teeth, a part of your family's diet.

Limit Snacking

Allowing your children to snack in moderation is fine, but an important practice to healthy snacking is to limit the amount of junk food available at home. Think of this as "out of sight, out of mind." Yet there's no need to eliminate snacks or all at once, as doing so may cause children to overindulge their cravings when they're out of the house. A key aspect of enjoying snacking in moderation is for your child to have access to a variety of healthy snacks such as string cheese, whole grain snacks, fruits, veggies, and the seven best foods for your teeth. Having access to such a variety, and making substitutions for standard junk food items, will help your child create healthy habits and avoid temptation for unhealthy snacks.

A few easy substitutions for common junk food include baked fries instead of regular fries, low-fat frozen yogurt or sorbet instead of ice cream and fig bars, and graham crackers instead of sugar-rich pastries and cookies. When planning out how to get your children to eat healthier, remember that it's never black or white. Balance and moderation are key!

Increase Physical Activity

Engaging your child in a conversation about the value of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle will help them understand the benefits, and what better way to promote a healthy lifestyle than to have a conversation and lead by example? Doing activities together, such as going for brisk walks around the neighborhood, playing games, challenging them to a soccer match, dancing, swimming, and even playing tag, will encourage children to have a more energetic lifestyle.

While we all know that technology has weaved its way into our work, school, and home lives, it's important to reduce sedentary time spent in front of a screen. Note that if your child does love video games or the chance to exercise outside is not available, many game systems have active, full-body activations for them to utilize. Creativity is vital when it comes to keeping your kids moving.

Using the above tips, parents can establish healthy habits for their children to carry into adulthood. Whether it's learning how to snack on nutritious foods instead of grabbing something unfulfilling or developing a love of physical activity when stress takes over, your child can learn the small decisions they make each day will add up to a larger role in their overall health.

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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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