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It is no secret that waistlines in the United States are getting bigger than ever before. This phenomenon has been going on for quite some time, including over the last few decades. What is most alarming is the sharp rise in the rate of obesity in school-aged children, which in recent years has become a full-blown healthcare crisis. As concerned parents focused on the health of our families, and especially our children, at a time when traditional options like gym classes at school, organized team and intramural sports, and other activities at school or public options are unavailable due to COVID, what can we do to help our children understand and maintain a healthy lifestyle? What can be done for children who are obese or bigger than it is healthy for them to be? Given the immediate and long-term consequences of obesity, it is imperative we find healthy solutions for our children.

In searching for answers, I reached out to nutritionist Maria Elena Capra Seoane who offered some great advice.

Recommended diet and exercise options for the whole family

There are many types of healthy diets that a family can adopt. One of the best-known diets is the Mediterranean diet. Another healthy diet option is the Japanese diet. A good and easy guideline to remember regardless of which diet you choose is to ensure that each plate is composed of at least 50 percent vegetables.  The vegetables can be varied in type and color. Twenty-five percent should be whole grain carbohydrates, and the final 25 percent a protein. The healthiest proteins are typically white meats such as fish and chicken or your choice of legume. If you eat meat, Seoane recommends the family only consuming red meat once per week.

Her top diet tips are the following:

  • Drink water and avoid sugary drinks.
  • Use your olive oil of choice for cooking and avoid saturated and trans fats.
  • Eat three portions of seasonal fruit of various colors and textures daily.
  • Eliminate and/or significantly reduce foods like cake, ice cream, bacon, bread, and try to grill your meat on the weekends as time permits.

As for exercise, she recommends that as a family, you start incorporating exercise in manageable increments. You could start by taking walks in the neighborhood three or four days per week, for 15 to 30 minutes initially. As the habit takes hold and endurance grows, this can increase in frequency and duration over time.

Her top exercise recommendations include the following:

  • Try to perform physical family activities together on the weekends such as playing a sport, going for a walk or hike, or going swimming.
  • Take pets for a walk in the evenings.
  • The important takeaway with exercise is that these activities must become part of the family routine, that way they are more easily sustained over time.

The best way to address the issue of your child needing to losing weight

To address the issue of weight loss, it is best to approach the conversation from the perspective of living a healthier lifestyle rather than from an aesthetic point of view. She recommends focusing on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle that comes with a balanced diet and regular exercise and how good a healthy lifestyle will make them feel rather than focusing on how they will look or how others will perceive them.

Safe ways to help overweight children lose weight

Some of the best strategies that enable children to lose weight in a sustained way include the following important actions:

  • Doing the research together. If your child understands what makes a healthy diet, learns about the benefits of exercise, and has, in general, more knowledge on the subject of health, then they are more likely to be invested in and remain committed to the process of weight loss.
  • Let them “play” in the kitchen where they can prepare, sample, savor, and cook food. Take up organic gardening, and participate in nutrition workshops where they can actively participate and begin to understand where food comes from, learn how the body works, what nutrients it needs, and more.
  • Incorporate sports routines or physical games into household chores or cleaning up (i.e., every time you throw a white into the dryer do five jumping jacks, and every time you throw a color into the dryer do five squats). That makes them move their whole body and work up a sweat while having fun and being helpful.
  • Make meals at home. By cooking at home, you can control the ingredients, how food is cooked, and the portion sizes.

How parents can better support their children

  • Parents lead by example and most children learn by watching. Parents have to adopt healthy living habits which will serve as an example for children.
  • Provide them with information on the importance of good nutrition.
  • Help them understand the concept of a “healthy dish.”
  • Have fixed mealtimes.
  • Develop healthy menus with the participation of your children that are a balance of vegetables, protein, and carbs.
  • Eat five times a day (breakfast, snack in the morning, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner in the evening).
  • Get your kids used to eating breakfast every day.
  • Drink enough water daily (six to eight cups).
  • Encourage them to play sports or other regular exercises.
  • Provide healthy food items in the house and remove unhealthy and tempting food options.
  • Make sure the last meal of the day is “light.” Go heavy on vegetables and light on protein and make sure not to eat at least three hours before going to bed.

The best way to maintain weight loss

The best way to maintain weight loss is to keep a healthy menu that incorporates a balanced and nutritious menu and lead an active lifestyle. To do this, here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Identify the behaviors, addictive foods, and triggers that caused the weight gain in the first place. Avoid having those foods in the cupboard or fridge at home and supplement those food items with healthier options.
  • Always maintain an eating discipline of five times per day which boosts the metabolism and burns more fat at a steady rate.
  • Avoid snacking between meals. To do this, incorporating a routine of three strong meals and two planned snacks (one in mid-morning and one in mid-afternoon) is ideal. The snacks can consist of a serving of fruit in the morning and a bowl of natural yogurt with nuts and a spoon of honey in the afternoon.
  • Hydrate properly with water (six to eight cups per day). Light drinks or homemade natural fruit juices can also be included. Also, if they have no allergies and your kids like it, you can infuse the water or juice with things like chamomile, mint, cinnamon, a teaspoon of honey or stevia, to add a little variety.
  • Maintain a plan for regular exercise to help increase energy expenditure and a more active metabolism.
  • Limit consumption of refined sugars.

The bottom line is, like anything in life worth having, you have to work for it.  The good news is through regular exercise and changing eating habits, healthy weight loss and maintenance of that weight loss is possible for children. Finally, Seoane recommends before you and your child embark on a healthy weight-loss journey together, be sure to establish regular consultations with a nutritionist or pediatrician.

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