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Preventing Childhood Obesity: Healthy eating habits during pregnancy and after

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Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last few decades. In the late 1970s, 6.5 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds were obese. In 2008 it was almost 20 percent. Nearly one in five kids over the age of two is now obese.

Heavier children are more likely to be heavy as adults, and some research indicates that if weight problems start before the age of eight, obesity in adulthood is more likely to be severe. Not only that, higher childhood BMI (body mass index) is connected to greater risk of type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Last week, a large study found that the population is becoming heavier as early as nine months old. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, researchers analyzed measurements from over 16,000 nine-month- and two-year-olds born in 2001. They found that 32 percent of the babies were over the 85th percentile, and 17 percent were over the 95th. The breakdown was similar at age two.

If the trend towards heaviness begins early on and has far-reaching consequences, then it makes sense to lay the groundwork for good habits when your child is young. Here is some healthy food for thought:

  • Start in pregnancy.

    Evidence is growing that there is a connection between pregnancy weight gain, birth weight, and childhood weight. Most likely through chemical changes to the brain and metabolism, moms who go far outside their recommended pounds can pass on the tendency for weight gain to their kids. (Though of course you don’t want to go under the recommended weight gain either.)

    Also consider that the foods you eat in pregnancy influence your developing baby’s palate. Only able to eat bread and peanut butter while you’re carrying? No, your little one isn’t destined for only PB&Js, but flavors are known to transmit through amniotic fluid, so think about throwing in not only healthy whole foods, but Thai or Japanese every so often if the mood strikes. Your baby might just end up loving wasabi.

  • Breastfeed if you can.

    There is evidence that breastfeeding moderately lowers the risk of being overweight. And the growth chart for breastfed babies is different, with weight gain increasing faster on average with formula-fed babies, starting at around three to six months of age. If you’re formula feeding, think about offering smaller, more frequent bottles instead of large servings all at once.

    When you breastfeed, your baby samples your food as well – eat spinach or garlic and your milk will pass on the flavor. Remember this applies even when you’re supplementing with formula.

  • Start with veggies, skip the rice cereal.

    The most recent thinking on solids is that rice cereal only familiarizes babies with the taste of processed simple carbohydrates. Consider starting with steamed and pureed vegetables, brown rice, or oatmeal. Babies get almost all their nutrients through breast milk or formula through the first year of life, so there’s no need to load up on calories from solids. Consider moving towards versions of your own table food once your baby reaches 9 months or so.

  • Size up the preschool yard and save the stroller for long walks.

    Exercise habits are born early, so if you’re picking a daycare or preschool program, consider one with good outdoor running space. And get in the habit of walking – if you’re on a mile-long outing, go for the stroller, but if you’re headed to the park or the corner store, have your little one move on his own.

  • Ditch the “clean plate” policy.

    Feeding your baby and toddler is about nutrition and expanding little palates, but it’s even more about setting up a healthy relationship to food. That means waiting until your baby shows an obvious interest and encouraging self-feeding finger foods as early as possible. Offer healthy, varied options for food, but let your child decide whether or how much to eat – that way he learns to pay attention to his own hunger cues.

  • Also remember that food shouldn’t be a reward, punishment, or forbidden fruit.

    The idea is to model a healthy attitude to foods – restricting sweets flat out, for example, can make them all the more tantalizing later on. Better to let your child know all kinds of foods, and then you find a healthy place in his diet for sweets.

  • Limit TV.

    This is an obvious one, but two thirds of infants and toddlers watch TV at least two hours a day. TV itself isn’t going to add pounds, but requisite lack of activity can. Television isn’t inherently bad, it’s more that it can become a habit that grows over time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of TV time, and none for children under two.

  • Play with your food.

    And eat strange things. This one might be the most important habit to practice with your child from the start. Food is enjoyable, social, delicious, and different. Take your kids out to experiment with food or just be around while you experiment (mmm:I like this new Szechuan Chinese flavor!).

  • Eat together if you can.

    Even if you can’t do the full-blown family dinner, cut up a pear and some walnuts and sit on the living room floor together to share the fun of eating. Grow a garden or taste different farmers market vegetables together. It’s a great gift – and one that might have a lasting impact – to teach your child to really love and enjoy food. Ironically, that could be one of the best antidotes to weight troubles later on.

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