What Parents Can Do to Keep Kids From Snacking Their Way to Obesity

Here are 3 easy ways to protect your kids against obesity.

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The news on childhood obesity is almost universally bad, including this latest item: Kids snack three times a day on junk food, accounting for almost one third of their daily calories.

Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and author of a recent study on kids and snacks that was published in Health Affairs, warns that American children are developing a "dysfunctional eating pattern" of snarfing down three meals plus three snacks a day. Snacking has added 168 calories a day to children's intake over the last 25 years, according to Popkin. No wonder child obesity has become what Susan Dentzer, editor of Health Affairs, calls "child abuse."

Parents get beaten up on by doctors and public-health officials for feeding kids junk food and not making sure they get exercise. But parents aren't the only ones to blame, and the big actors in this drama make it hard for parents to make the necessary healthful changes. Systemic problems include:

  • Schools that feed students greasy salty, food because it's made cheaply from federally subsidized products like cheese.
  • An agricultural system that produces cheap sugar and refined starch even as the cost of healthful stuff soars. (Fruit and vegetable prices rose 17 percent from 1997 to 2003, while prices for other foods dropped.)
  • Outdoor exercise for kids is endangered. Many school districts have cut recess, and children who live in neighborhoods that parents think are unsafe or that lack decent parks are more likely to be overweight or obese.

Fixing these complex, systemic problems will be a real bear; speakers at Tuesday's National Press Club conference on childhood obesity said that it would be tougher than the battle against smoking. But public-health campaigns have been successful in lowering smoking rates, so there's no reason similar tactics can't be successful against childhood obesity. Policymakers are considering taxing sodas and other unhealthful foods and using the cash to support health initiatives such as exercise programs. There's also discussion of banning junk-food advertising and of providing incentives for farmers to grow more healthful foods. But those fixes won't happen overnight.

Parents do have the power to help protect our children against the health risks of obesity, starting now. Here are three practical steps you can take today:

  • Cut back to one snack a day for children 6 and older, says Popkin, and make sure it includes apple slices, carrots, or other healthful fare. Eliminate juice. (I got this last tip from first mom Michelle Obama, who banned juice boxes from her girls' lunches when the pediatrician said they needed to be careful about their weight.)
  • Limit TV time. Children's use of television and computers has been linked to obesity, particularly if a child has a TV in her or his room. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting kids' screen time to two hours a day.
  • Walk the walk. Parents are still children's most powerful role models. If you're turning off the TV to go for a walk, or doing push-ups instead of chomping Cheetos, you'd better believe the kids will notice. When I started doing sit-ups on the floor last night (an event that's rarer than it should be), my daughter immediately started showing me how she's working on a handstand.

It doesn't take the resources of a Michelle Obama to make life better for our kids. Another busy D.C. mom is quoted in the policy-heavy Health Affairs: "Ms. Shears," a single mom with nine children in her house. A 5-year-old foster child nicknamed Zozo had been obese when he came into her care at age 4, but one year later his body mass index was in the healthy range. What did you do? the amazed pediatrician asked. Here's what Ms. Shears told the interviewer:

"Well, I have diabetes, you know, and so I'm supposed to be on a special diet. I wasn't following it too good, but then Zozo came to me. The doctor told me he was obese. Obese and couldn't do much, just sit there. Well, I decided. I decided to make some changes."

She went on to [say that] she made new rules in the house, rules for all the children. They ate what was on their plates and no more or less. Right afterward, they were sent outside to play.

"I used up all the soda and juice I had and didn't buy any more," she said. "Only water and milk now, and only low-fat milk—1 percent if they have it at the store.

"Zozo was so attached to Happy Meals when I got him, I couldn't take that away from him. So we still go once a week to McDonald's, and he and Quadir share a Happy Meal."

I often cave when my kid whines for candy and juice. But if Ms. Shears can apply common sense and fortitude and produce such a happy result, I can, too. Time to share that Happy Meal!