Childhood obesity is a public health crisis with consequences that we may only fully understand in the decades to come, but what can we do to reduce its impact today? As medical professionals, it’s incumbent upon us to partner with parents to help children develop healthy habits and lose weight using proven, natural methods, including through dietary changes and exercise in order to better balance calories taken in with calories expended. Unfortunately, though we can identify that childhood obesity is a problem, transforming the health of millions of children is no easy task.
What many health professionals today are realizing is that, in order to help 21st-century children better manage their health, we have to be proactive in our adoption of technological innovations. Tech tools – everything from activity trackers to nutrition websites – may be the very things we need to reach children who were metaphorically born with smartphones in their hands.
Bodies in Motion
As seen with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, increasing physical activity is a core component of fighting childhood obesity. This sounds like it should be easy – don’t kids love to run around outside with their friends? But it’s actually much more challenging than it sounds, which is why doctors today recommend equipping children with activity trackers, like a FitBit or Jawbone UP3. In fact, these devices may be more effective if you get them for the entire family.
One of the main advantages of activity trackers is that they turn every day into a competition. Maybe you child wasn’t on the winning kickball team at school, but did running the bases help them beat dad’s step total this week? Competing with parents and siblings – especially if there is a small, non-food prize they can earn – can motivate children to be more active all week long.
Though handheld devices are sometimes viewed as contributors to childhood obesity and many health professionals recommend restricting screen time, there are a lot of ways that parents can repurpose these devices to educate their children about nutrition. One way to do this is by having your young children play nutrition detective in the grocery store using online resources and apps.
What should your kids be looking for in this nutrition mystery game? There are many possibilities, but artificial sweeteners are a good example. According to Camp Shane, many foods contain artificial sweeteners so that they can claim to be sugar-free or low in calories, but that doesn’t make artificial sweeteners good for you. You can help your children make better decisions about what they eat by letting them hunt for these nutritional troublemakers in disguise when you go shopping by reading ingredient labels and the nutrition information panel.
Be App Savvy
There’s an app for everything, so why not employ one or more with the goal of helping young people better manage their weight and activity independently? Try out interactive apps like Easy Eater, an app that helps kids make smart personal choices by sharing a diet with a digital pet. Their job is to keep the pet healthy – and the pet eats what they eat. Think of it as an advanced version of the Nanopets and Tamogatchis that every `90s kid had.
Smash Your Food is another great nutrition app for kids, as it breaks down the traditional nutrition labels by literally breaking food into pieces. Smash a burger and find out how much salt was inside, or smash some pizza to get a sense of the fat content. As kids learn more about what’s inside the foods they eat, they carry that information into their day-to-day choices.
Fighting the Good Fight
As we age, the impact of obesity becomes more severe and it can worsen the chronic health conditions that are so common among older Americans. What’s more, obesity also functions as a multiplier when it comes to health costs, resulting in 34 percent more spending per person compared to those with a normal BMI. To diminish these issues down the line, it’s important to address childhood obesity now.
Children have a historically difficult time managing their weight because they lack the developmental maturity to stick to a long-term behavioral plan. That’s why health professionals need to work closely with parents, giving them tools to support their children on this journey and helping them to make family-wide changes. Fighting childhood obesity means more than just swapping cookies and candy for fruits and veggies – we have to rebuild habits from the ground up.