By: Dr. John M. Flack, Chair of Department of Medicine, Wayne State University
Preventing obesity is the best approach for protecting our youth against chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, heart failure, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and some cancers. The best strategies for obesity prevention are relatively straightforward – however implementing these strategies is the challenge. Our lives and our children’s lives are structured in a way that minimizes regular physical activity while exposing us to easily available energy-dense foods. Over the long-term, this is a very efficient way to gain unwanted weight. Energy-dense foods include fast foods, fried foods, pastries, and desserts. To many of us these foods taste good. When we eat these foods our brains release chemicals that make us feel good. Humans eat until we are full; since energy-dense foods take up little volume we eat more of them, consuming more calories in the process. Our preference for the taste of energy-dense food is learned very early in life. Soft drinks that are loaded with sugar are another dietary exposure that our youth acquire a taste for that is a major contributor to the epidemic of obesity in our youth.
As parents, we must pay more attention to the foods that are readily available for our children. Fruits and vegetables are not energy-dense foods. These foods are much healthier than energy-dense foods because they have a high fiber and water content. Thus, when we eat them they take up space in our stomachs, and we feel full after consuming fewer calories. Our youth also do not get enough exercise. Many schools have eliminated gym classes. After-school television, computer time, and video games take up much of our youth’s time – at the expense of burning calories by playing sports, riding a bike, walking/running, etc. How does this happen? As parents we are busy and don’t always pay close attention to what our children are eating and how active they are. Even school sports participation now costs us at many schools, which is another barrier to youth activity.
What are the solutions? One suggestion is for us to set a good example for our youth by engaging in regular (appropriate) physical activity ourselves. We can also give more attention to food preparation and the types of food available for our families. Eating out by itself does not always equate to being un-healthy. You have to be very selective when ordering, though, because most places are likely to have few healthy options. Avoid trying to be perfect. I try and get my patients (and family) to embrace the 80:20 rule. That is, it’s what you do 80% of the time that causes trouble over the long-term not what you do 20% of the time. If fruit and fresh vegetables, for example, are what you have to snack on rather than cookies, cakes, and sugar water drinks, our children will adapt.
Any change(s) you can make toward a healthier lifestyle, no matter how small or incremental, can make a difference. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it. However, there is very little worth doing that is easy!