Developing early healthy habits for life long health

By Dr. Patrick McIntosh D.O.<br>Family Medicine Resident, CNHSA
September 1, 2022

Obesity has become one of the most significant public health problems in the United States, and the Choctaw Nation also struggles with this health condition.

Obesity is defined as a BMI higher than 30. BMI is calculated with a person’s height and weight, which means the more one weighs, the higher their BMI.

Childhood obesity rates have also continued to increase, now affecting over 14.7 million children and adolescents in the United States. This has more than tripled since the early 1970s. The rate of obesity by age group is 12.7% in 2-5 year-olds, 20.7% in 6-11 year-olds, and 22.2% in 12-19 year-olds in the United States.

Why is obesity a problem, and specifically, why is childhood obesity a problem? Childhood obesity is a serious problem that puts children and adolescents at risk for poor health earlier in life. The immediate consequences of obesity include low self-esteem, depression, and high blood pressure. What can be more concerning is that childhood obesity can continue into adulthood and is associated with uncontrolled high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, joint pain, breathing problems such as asthma and sleep apnea, cancer, and even premature death.

The Choctaw population is already at an increased risk of these health conditions than the general population of the United States, so Choctaw children who are obese are at even greater risk for earlier health problems.

What can be done to prevent or reverse childhood obesity? Body weight is all about balancing how much food a person eats and how much a person exercises.

Some ways to improve eating habits are:

  • Don’t skip breakfast – this may seem counterintuitive, but eating breakfast is associated with better memory and attention span, healthier body weight and overall nutrition.
  • Keep healthy snacks in the home – fruits, vegetables, cheese, and whole grains are great for children. Kids eat what is in the house; don’t give them to option of soda and cookies.
  • Be aware of portion sizes – It’s easy for kids, and adults, to eat everything on their plate. Remember to be mindful of how much food is on the dinner plate. At the end of a meal, one should be satisfied – not full or “stuffed” like after a thanksgiving meal.
  • Eat as a family – Eating meals together can help everyone eat healthier, is a fun way to explore new foods together and is excellent for family conversations.
  • Keep meals screen free – Eating in front of a screen, TV or phone can lead to overeating, so best to avoid the screens, especially during family meals.

Those are some tips on the eating side but remember, obesity is a balancing act between what a person eats and how much energy is used, so let’s encourage kids and teens to use more energy!

Monitor screen time – This one is difficult; kids have had more access to screens now than ever before, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Try and limit screen time to no more than two hours a day. Use that extra time practicing a sport, riding a bike, or learning a new skill.

Regular exercise – when kids play outside, they will move around naturally, find that activity they enjoy and encourage them along the way. The more they move, the more energy they use.

Sleep – Encourage kids and teens to get enough sleep, ideally 8-10 hours daily. Cut out that evening movie after family dinner, encourage a regular bedtime and again limit screen access in bed like phones or TV.

Obesity is not something that happens overnight, and it’s not something that can be fixed in a week. A sensible diet plan seeks to decrease weight gradually, usually at a rate of one to three pounds a week, so do not become discouraged if, after a month, weight only decreases by five pounds. That is a healthy rate. Diet and exercise are habits that need to be developed, it’s work and does not come easy to anyone, but if kids see their parents making efforts, they too will make an effort and develop healthy habits along the way.

Remember, the goal is to instill healthy habits in children, not necessarily weight loss. If healthy habits are created, weight loss will follow.

This column was written by a guest contributor from the Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority.