Apple with a tape measure around it
Apple with a tape measure around it
Apple with a tape measure around it

Obesity Prevention

Obesity Statistics

Obesity is a chronic disease affecting an increasing number of children, teens and adults. Obesity rates among children in the U.S. have doubled since 1980, and have tripled for teens. About 19.7% of children ages 2 to 19 are considered obese, compared with over 41% of adults who are considered obese.

Earlier onset of type 2 diabetes, heart and blood vessel disease, and obesity-related depression and social isolation in children and teens are being seen more often by health care professionals. The longer a person is obese, the more significant obesity-related risk factors become. Given the chronic diseases and conditions associated with obesity and the fact that obesity is hard to treat, prevention is extremely important.

A primary reason that prevention of obesity is so vital in children is because the likelihood of childhood obesity persisting into adulthood increases as the child ages. This puts the person at high risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Childhood Obesity

Children and teens can become overweight or obese because of poor eating habits and lack of physical activity. Genetics and lifestyle also contribute to a child’s weight status.

Recommendations for prevention of overweight and obesity in children and teens include the following:

  • Gradually work to change family eating habits and activity levels rather than focusing on a child’s weight.

  • Be a role model. Parents who eat healthy foods and participate in physical activity set an example, so a child is more likely to do the same.

  • Encourage physical activity. Children should have 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. More than 60 minutes of activity may promote weight loss and provide weight maintenance.

  • Reduce screen time in front of phones, computers and TV to less than one to two hours daily.

  • Encourage children and teens to eat only when hungry and to eat slowly.

  • Don’t use food as a reward or withhold food as a punishment.

  • Keep the refrigerator stocked with fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruit and vegetables instead of soft drinks and snacks high in sugar and fat.

  • Serve at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

  • Encourage children and teens to drink water rather than beverages with added sugar, such as soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit juice drinks.

  • Eat meals together as a family. Family meals can create healthier eating habits.

Does Breastfeeding Prevent Obesity?

The answer is complicated. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC, breastfed babies are less likely to become overweight. The CDC also reports that the longer babies are fed at the breast (not just given breast milk from a bottle), the less likely they are to become overweight as they grow older. However, many formula-fed babies grow up to be adults of healthy weight.

Further research has questioned the link between breastfeeding and obesity. Parents who can afford to stay with their babies and breastfeed for three months or more are likely to be in higher income families and have more access to healthy food, health care and exercise opportunities for their children. These advantages could account for the lower incidence of obesity in these children. 

Preventing Obesity in Adults

Many of the strategies that produce successful weight loss and maintenance help prevent obesity. Improving eating habits and increasing physical activity play a vital role in preventing obesity. Recommendations for adults include:

  • Keep a food diary of what you eat, where you were and how you were feeling before and after you ate.

  • Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. A vegetable serving is 1 cup of raw vegetables or 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables or vegetable juice. A fruit serving is one piece of small to medium fresh fruit, 1/2 cup of canned or fresh fruit or fruit juice, or 1/4 cup of dried fruit.

  • Choose whole grain foods, such as brown rice and whole wheat bread. Don’t eat highly processed foods made with refined white sugar, flour, high fructose corn syrup and saturated fat.

  • Weigh and measure food to learn correct portion sizes. For example, a 3-ounce serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards. Don’t order supersized menu items.

  • Learn to read food nutrition labels and use them; keep the number of portions you are really eating in mind.

  • Balance the food “checkbook.” If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. Weigh yourself weekly.

  • Don’t eat foods that are high in “energy density,” or that have a lot of calories in a small amount of food. For example, an average cheeseburger with an order of fries can have as many as 1,000 calories and 30 or more grams of fat. By ordering a grilled chicken sandwich or a plain hamburger and a small salad with low-fat dressing, you can avoid hundreds of calories and eliminate much of the fat intake. For dessert, have a serving of fruit, yogurt, a small piece of angel food cake, or a piece of dark chocolate instead of frosted cake, ice cream or pie.

  • Simply reducing portion sizes and using a smaller plate can help you lose weight.

  • Aim for an average of 60 to 90 minutes or more of moderate to intense physical activity three to four days each week. Examples of moderate intensity exercise are walking a 15-minute mile or weeding and hoeing a garden. Running or playing singles tennis are examples of more intense activities.

  • Look for ways to get even 10 or 15 minutes of some type of activity during the day. Walking around the block or up and down a few flights of stairs is a good start.

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