Region dietitians offer tips to limit childhood obesity - November 2, 2018

Courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana

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It’s no surprise to most that some children weigh too much: One out of six children in the U.S. is obese, and one out of three is overweight or obese, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

Two Region health care professionals say they’re concerned about the risks to overweight children, citing the Harvard report that extra weight can harm almost all kids’ body systems, including heart, lungs, muscles, bones, kidneys, digestive tract, and hormones that control puberty, as well as take a toll on the child’s social life and emotional health.

Parents are in the best position to prevent or correct their children’s excessive weight gain, says Carol Sakelaris, a certified diabetes educator, acute care educator and registered nurse at Methodist Hospitals in Gary and Merrillville locations.

“It’s the parents who control the shopping and what comes into the house,”  she says.

But that can be more complicated than it sounds.

Sakelaris notes the various factors at play, including family finances: “It is cheaper to eat bad than to eat healthy. Some families are living in food deserts, where there aren’t places close enough to get fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It may be a lack of transportation, so then it becomes a matter of how much you can carry home from a store; you may choose packaged goods like macaroni and cheese and a potato to fry up. And a vegetable isn’t going to fill you up like a starchy food will.”

Further, the parents may not know how to cook or may model bad habits such as eating chips and cookies instead of healthful snacks, Sakelaris says.

Mary Condon, registered dietitian at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Hospital in Harvey, says some children overeat for emotional reasons. Eating while they’re watching TV or using an electronic device can add unneeded calories, which get stored as fat.

“The extra weight can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure that you wouldn’t see until someone is an adult,” says Sakelaris, who says Type 2 diabetes is occurring in children as young as 3 or 4 years old. Condon says inactivity and the family eating out frequently are other reasons kids become overweight.

Though genes can play a role in childhood obesity, Sakelaris and Condon say it’s not a common cause. “A genetic factor is a very small occurrence,” says Sakelaris. And as the Harvard report notes, “Healthy lifestyles can counteract these genetic effects.”

When should parents become concerned about their child’s weight gain? Condon says pediatricians can be the best guide, because they plot the child’s growth on a graph that includes body mass index and other measures. If the child is overweight or obese, “that’s when the parent should seek help with a referral from the pediatrician to a dietitian,” Condon says.

What can parents do?

Guidelines for maintaining proper weight are pretty much the same no matter what a child weighs, though a pediatrician or dietitian may tailor them to an obese child.

First, parents need to keep in mind what not to do. “You don’t want to make food the enemy,” Sakelaris says. “We really don’t promote dieting as much as a healthy lifestyle.”

Condon advises not to focus on weight loss. Instead, make it about becoming more physically active and making healthier food choices.

And be flexible.

“The Thanksgiving table is not an appropriate place to be commenting on a child’s weight or eating habits,” clinical psychologist Rebecca Puhl said in a November 2017 story in The New York Times. The story also said experts encourage allowing children to enjoy treats on holidays and other special days.