Childhood Obesity: Educating Parents is Most Important
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has committed another $500 million to combating childhood obesity. The pledge will be spread across several initiatives, including improving school lunches, encouraging exercise and eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages for children.
While a multifaceted approach like this is important, we must make educating parents an equal if not dominant priority to truly combat this epidemic. Here’s why.
Even at school, lunches are just the tip of the iceberg.
While much has been made of the campaign to clean up our kids’ lunches, school meal programs play only a minor role in the obesity problem. That’s because there’s a ton of other junk foods finding their way into your child’s system.
Kids scarf down 20 to 35 cupcakes a year as well as cookies, crackers and juice at birthday celebrations and holiday-themed events. Schools also host bake sales, and cookie dough and ice cream sales to raise money. Who provides most of these treats? Parents — the same parents who get angry when a district tries to implement a wellness policy.
Extracurricular activities also offer traps for kids and parents trying to establish a healthy lifestyle. Look at the typical treat-fueled events that occur in a child’s life outside school walls: Sports, religious youth groups and after-school clubs often provide sport drinks, doughnuts, gummies, granola bars, pizza, cookies, juice, chips or soda.
It’s parents serving up these snacks — and parents who often resist going against the crowd by being “the health nut” who substitutes fruit and water for Gatorade and doughnuts.
In addition to school functions and extracurricular activities laden with empty-calorie foods, there other minefields in the battle against obesity that educated parents can help kids avoid.
Families these days eat out more often and cook at home less. This seems to be true regardless of socioeconomic situation. Why? No one feels like they have enough time (or the ability) to cook a healthy meal. Stocking a pantry with nutritious foods to make these meals can be confusing, especially with the onslaught of new products, aggressive marketing and contradictory information out there today.
Helping parents prepare nutritious meals and finding healthy, affordable ingredients to stock a pantry even on a limited budget are critical to long-term success.
Lack of exercise is another factor. Parents are both role models and decision makers. They have an opportunity to make physical activity a priority in their house. Evening walks and active weekends instead of watching TV and playing video games will benefit the entire family.
If parental education is key, what should these educational programs teach?
- Basic nutrition. This should start when children are born, if not sooner, so parents can start creating healthy habits when kids are young.
- How to shop. Which products are healthy, and which should we limit or avoid?
- How to cook. Provide meal-planning ideas for preparing simple, inexpensive, healthful food.
- Exercise strategies. How do we make this a priority and include it as part of our family routine? While the government is creating better policies around food and sugary drinks and working on creating healthy school environments, let’s work on arming parents with the information and tools they need to navigate this challenging environment and raise happy kids who know how to make healthy choices.
This article was first published in the Mercury News Opinion section.
And as a bonus, Thea discusses a way she set an example in her family below:
Thea Runyan is co-founder and head of coaching and content for Kurbo Health. For the past 12 years, she has been the lead behavior coach for the Pediatric Weight Control Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. She wrote this for this newspaper.