Healthy Halifax Summer 2019: In Focus

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Avoiding Obesity

Developing healthy habits starts at a young age

Children need the energy from food to grow and develop, but eating too much can open the door to being overweight and lead to health issues — such as diabetes and heart disease — that can last a lifetime. To help your child avoid obesity and its potential complications, start with a healthy diet and physical activity.

“The imbalance between food intake and output causes obesity,” says Sandeep Tiwari, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Park Avenue Pediatrics. “Over the last few decades, lifestyle changes have resulted in the piling on of calories from eating more processed foods.”

A recent National Institutes of Health study gives insight into one part of the obesity puzzle. Researchers found that consuming a diet mostly composed of ultra-processed foods actually drives people to overeat and gain weight compared to diets made up of whole or minimally processed foods.

“Most of my obese patients are on a processed food diet,” notes Sheila Bhagwandass, MD, FAAP, Park Avenue Pediatrics pediatrician. “I tell them most packaged food is not really healthy. The problem is that it’s easier than preparing a meal from fresh ingredients.”

Ultra-processed foods tend to have more carbohydrates and preservatives, and not enough fiber, both of which contribute to a high glycemic index (GI). GI is a number indicating how fast carbohydrates are converted into glucose, or sugar, in the body.

So what is the source of these ultra-processed foods? It’s largely fast foods and convenience foods — the ones we love to eat. And unfortunately, it’s a love that starts early. “A child’s preference for processed food often begins when a parent offers a 9- or 10-month-old their first taste of a fast-food meal,” Dr. Tiwari points out.

Parents should consider slowly changing those preferences by involving children in meal planning, grocery shopping and even cooking. Kids who participate in food decisions may develop a sense of ownership in what the family eats, and the time spent together in the process can help strengthen family bonds.

While more people are aware of health issues such as obesity, major lifestyle changes don’t occur overnight. “Change takes time,” says Dr. Bhagwandass. “I find parents and children are more aware, but they are not necessarily acting on what they know. Most likely, it will be the children of the kids we see now who will most benefit.”

In addition to having a better diet, children need to move every day. Children ages 6 to 17 should have at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This should include aerobic, muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities. Other important habits for children are drinking plenty of water and receiving sound sleep every night. In the fight against childhood obesity, area residents have an effective partner in the Roanoke Valley Community Health Initiative (RV-CHI), which provides education about healthy living. (See “Empowered Through Education.”) Since RV-CHI began, Dr. Tiwari has seen a positive shift in his patients. “Before RV-CHI, we would be the ones talking with parents about the importance of healthy eating and exercise,” he remarks. “Nowadays, it’s the parents who initiate those conversations.”

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