Childhood obesity is a serious concern. Obese children have adverse health effects during childhood, and it increases their risk of future chronic disease in adult life. Overnutrition from the wrong types of foods is the greatest nutrition-related risk to children today. Fortunately, providing your children with a variety of plant foods can provide all the nutrients they need to grow and develop normally while minimizing their risk for excess weight gain and future chronic diseases.
Contrary to what you may have heard, studies show that our childhood obesity crisis is not due to a lack of exercise or more time in front of the television and computer. While physical activity is key to good health in general, when it comes to keeping a healthy weight, what you eat is more important than what you burn off through exercise—this is simply because it is so difficult to burn off the large number of calories in junk foods and fast foods, especially for a child.
Children with weight problems tend to consume more calories, fat, fast foods, and energy-dense choices, which are generally foods and beverages with added fats and sugars. By consuming less of these types of foods, eating breakfast regularly, and consuming more fruits and vegetables, children have a lower risk of developing weight problems.
Since plant foods are packed with fiber along with nutrients, they tend to be lower in calories compared to the same portion of animal products, which are void of fiber. It’s easy to see why people who tend to eat the most amount of plant foods and the least amount of animal products can most successfully maintain a healthy weight. Vegetarians have been shown to be leaner than their meat-eating peers in a number of scientific studies, and vegetarian diets have also been shown to be effective in weight loss.
So, what should you feed your children to prevent unhealthy weight gain? Well, the same types of foods that keep your children healthy will keep you healthy, too. Dr. Spock advised changing the types of foods children eat rather than the amount of food they eat. He encouraged shifting the entire family away from oily fried foods, meats, and dairy products and toward low-fat, plant-based foods: grains, pasta, vegetables, legumes, and fruit. When this is done, he stated, “weight loss typically occurs without anyone going hungry.” This is the key to lifelong weight maintenance. The scientific evidence is clear: The closer a family gets to a pure vegetarian diet, the healthier and leaner they’ll be.
Helpful Tips & Hints
- Limit the quantities of highly processed foods and sugary beverages (otherwise known as empty-calorie foods) and help children understand reasonable portion sizes. Under most circumstances, restricting the calorie intake of children is not recommended. Children continue to grow and develop into their early 20s, so they can’t afford to shortchange nutrients. However, switching out the empty-calorie foods with healthy options ensures growing kids get everything they need—except the excess calories!
- Children and adults can benefit from learning to listen to their natural hunger and fullness cues, rather than focusing on cleaning their plates. Help children learn to pay attention to natural internal signals to keep from overeating. If a child does not want to finish his or her meal now, the plate can be wrapped and saved for when the child is hungry later. Promising dessert as a reward is best avoided as well, as it encourages overeating and makes less healthful foods seem special.
- Teach children the value of good nutrition. Parents, guardians, and teachers can work with children toward an understanding that food is a fuel for health and fitness rather than a comfort, friend, enemy, or boredom reliever. Reading books to children that present nutrition in a fun and interesting manner is also a good educational method.
- Get kids engaged in the food procurement and preparation process. Gardening; picking berries, apples, or other produce at you-pick farms; or visiting the local farmers market or fruit stand can spark an interest in healthy foods. Invite them also to participate in menu planning, as well as cooking. Even very small children can help stir cold or room temperature items, wash produce, or pour ingredients. These simple experiential lessons will often go a long way to promoting healthy eating habits.