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Tips for raising healthy kids as obesity rates skyrocket

This week, a comprehensive study published in the Lancet revealed that the number of obese children, aged five to 19, worldwide has skyrocketed tenfold over the past 40 years.

The study, led by the Imperial College of London in collaboration with the World Health Organization, involved height and weight data on nearly 130 million people. While childhood obesity rates are on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, the rise appears to have levelled off, at least temporarily, in high-income countries such as Canada.

Good news perhaps, but our national childhood obesity numbers remain dismal and alarming. According to Statistics Canada, in 2015 nearly 15 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls – aged five to 17 – were considered obese, numbers that have nearly tripled since the 1970s.

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Kids with obesity are at a higher risk for asthma, sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. They're also more likely to be bullied than their peers who are at a healthy weight.

Obesity in childhood also increases the likelihood of becoming an obese adult and developing the health problems that come with it – diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

As a parent, it's not always easy to recognize that your child has a weight problem. Kids grow at different rates and changes in body fat differ among girls and boys.

Ask your family pediatrician to review your child's growth charts with you. At annual check-ups, they should assess your child's body mass index (BMI) for age.

This information shows how your child's measurements compare with other kids of the same gender and age, and will indicate whether he is overweight or obese. Your doctor will look at the pattern rather than an individual number.

If your child is carrying an unhealthy amount of weight, your pediatrician may recommend a weight-loss diet with the help of a registered dietitian. It's important that your child follow a healthy plan that provides all the nutrients he needs for growth and development.

For overweight children who are still growing, the goal is to maintain their weight or slow their rate of weight gain while they grow taller. Older teenagers can safely lose one to two pounds a week.

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If you're concerned that your child is overweight, or heading down that path, the following tips can help keep him healthy and prevent him from gaining excess weight.

Start with a low glycemic breakfast. Foods with a low glycemic index (GI) such as oatmeal, stone ground whole wheat bread, yogurt, milk, fruit and nuts help kids feel full longer, making them less likely to overeat. Low GI foods are digested slowly and lead to a gradual, sustained rise in blood sugar.

Include a good source of filling protein at breakfast, too. Greek yogurt, eggs, cheese, even leftover chicken, are good choices.

Ditch sugary drinks. Cutting back on sugary drinks such as 100-per-cent fruit juice, soft drinks and sports drinks can make a big difference in a child's daily calorie intake and, for some kids, will promote weight loss. Encourage water instead.

Rein in their sweet tooth. Serve a sugary treat only once or twice a week as part of your family's menu. Offer nutritious, naturally sweet desserts and snacks such as banana "ice cream," frozen grapes, yogurt and fruit parfaits or a peanut butter and banana milkshake.

Avoid sending cookies, gummy bears or sugary granola bars in your child's lunch every day. Pack fresh fruit instead.

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Follow the plate model. Fill one-quarter of your child's plate with protein (e.g., chicken, fish, lean meat, tofu, beans), one-quarter with healthy carbs (e.g., brown rice, sweet potato, pasta, whole fruit) and the rest with vegetables (cooked or raw), which add volume to meals with fewer calories.

If you feel your child's portions are too large, serve smaller amounts of food and let him ask for more if still hungry.

Plan family meals. Research shows that kids eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy foods and are less likely to be obese when they regularly eat family dinners.

If your family's weekday schedule prevents you from sharing dinner together, other shared mealtimes can also help foster healthy eating habits.

To get children used to sharing a family meal, cook one meal for everyone instead of becoming a short-order cook.

Get everyone on board. Don't single your child out. Use the same healthy-eating approach for the whole family. Kids learn their habits from their parents, so model healthy eating and exercise practices.

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Get kids involved. Enlist your child's help in meal planning, grocery shopping, meal preparation, even setting the table and clean up. Children who help prepare healthy meals are more likely to eat them.

Prepare meals that give young kids a role such as mixing ingredients, shredding lettuce, chopping vegetables (if age-appropriate) or dressing the salad.

Ensure adequate sleep. Mounting evidence suggests that kids who get too little sleep are more likely to become overweight or obese. They're also less likely to eat a healthy diet.

Children aged three to five need 10 to 13 hours of sleep a night, school-aged kids need nine to 11 hours and teenagers, ages 14 to 17, should get eight to 10 hours.

Limit screen time. Too much time in front of the television, computer or tablet has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep schedules and shorter sleep duration. Infants, aged 18 months and younger, should not be exposed to digital media. For children, ages two to five, limit screen time to one hour a day.

For older kids, determine restrictions for your child and enforce those daily and weekly limits and curfews. Prioritize physical activity and sleep over screen time.

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Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.

Nearly 200,000 Americans have bariatric surgery each year. Jessica Shapiro, 22, weighed 295 pounds when she had gastric bypass in late 2015.
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