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Fuelled and Fit, Kids and Tweens
With a dizzying plethora of parenting blogs, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important thing a parent can do for their child – keep them healthy. Active, well-nourished kids grow strong bodies and healthy minds.
1) Keep Active to Prevent Childhood Obesity
Children can learn to adopt healthy behaviours early in life by modeling after their parents or caregivers and by being regularly exposed to supportive environments that encourage physical activity. Sadly, the current climate today continues to promote sedentary behaviours, with easy access to technology by means of tablets, laptops, and smart devices. The combination of controllable factors like poor dietary habits and little to no physical activity is the perfect recipe for becoming overweight and obese.
Research has found that childhood obesity is an independent risk factor for adult overweight and obesity. This fact should be a cause for concern for many parents. Obese children today have a 25-50% increased risk for becoming obese adults and if left unchecked, it could increase one’s risk for chronic diseases later in life.
Kids need a daily dose of physical activity each day for healthy growth and for muscle and brain development. Aim for one hour a day of activity, if possible. The great thing is that activities don’t need to be done in one sitting, nor do they need to be done as a standalone. That one hour can be broken up into more manageable chunks of time – 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there! Changing up the activity routine is important. As we know, variety can make things interesting and exciting! Perhaps you and your kids can walk the dog for 20 minutes or even have a competition of who can unload and fold laundry the fastest.
Maybe your children enjoy playing interactive video games where lots of movement is involved. Whatever it is, your creativity, time-management and planning make a difference to your child’s level of interest and participation in physical activities. Take the time to actively involve your children in planning the family’s physical activity schedule. It demonstrates to your children that their contributions matter and are valued. Get them to help you brainstorm a list of things they enjoy doing that involve moving and try to build these activities in. By including your kids in the planning, they are also more likely to engage in and enjoy the activities. Doing things together with your kids also helps to promote stronger family bonds.
Among the many challenges that parents also face, kids and teens today are more hardwired to their mobile devices than ever before – we’re talking smartphones and tablets 24/7. Easy access to computer devices make it harder for children to disconnect, but it’s important to do so. Encourage your kids to limit their screen time on computers, smartphones, tablets and TVs to no more than 2 hours a day. In addition to being sedentary, an increasing number of children are now reportedly developing computer vision syndrome, headaches and pain in shoulders, neck and back, digital eye strain, and myopia (nearsightedness) early on.
Encourage your kids to engage in more activities that are off-screen, but also be comfortable setting boundaries on the use of electronic devices at home. Perhaps you may want to limit phone, TV, tablet, and computer usage after 7 pm, ban the use of phones at the dinner table or anytime the family is eating. Remember, if you’re setting the rules, stick to it. If your child challenges you, allow for the conversation to happen and use this opportunity to explain why you are setting these limits.
Think outside the box when you’re planning activities! Some ideas may include: hosting a chores marathon, choosing more interactive video games, participating in a scavenger hunt with neighbours, taking part in a community sports team, being in a FitBit step challenge with friends, or having the family participate in a summer race for charity. Remember, getting your kids to be more active is a family and a community endeavour. Children need to feel supported, encouraged, and motivated.
Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology Guidelines
Early years (0-4 years):
• Infants (less than 1 year) – aim to be physically active several times daily with interactive floor-based play (i.e. tummy time, reaching and grasping for toys, rolling on the floor, crawling) • Toddlers (aged 1-2 years) and Preschoolers (aged 3-4 years) – aim for at least 3 hours of physical activity at any intensity and spread them throughout the day (i.e. climbing stairs, active moving around the house, playing outside and exploring, crawling or brisk walking, dancing, running). Allow the activity progression to go towards 1 hour of energetic play by 5 years of age.
Children (5-11 years):
• 1 hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. Aim for at least 3 days out of the week for physical activity. Examples include bike riding, swimming, jogging, playground activities.
Youth (12-17 years):
• 1 hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. Aim for at least 3 days out of the week for physical activity. Examples include rollerblading, running, bike riding, skating, going to a fitness class.
2) Discourage Emotional Eating
Modelling positive eating behaviours at home is important to the development of your child’s own experiences and relationship with food. Recent studies have found that parents who use food to help their child alleviate stressful situations or negative emotions are encouraging the adoption of “emotional eating,” which can be detrimental to the child’s personal relationship with food. Children exposed to these types of home environments may continue these behaviours later in life – possibly leading to emotionally- driven food habits that may result in them becoming overweight or obese. As a parent, it is important to understand that food should not be used as a reward. Rather, encourage your kids to follow their own internal cues and allow them to eat when they feel hungry. Offer your child a variety of healthy foods at meals and snacks and try to encourage them to eat more vegetables when possible. This can help your child develop better eating habits and food relationships as they become older.
3) Model Positive Eating Practices
The adolescent years are often a time for personal discovery. It’s a time of intense growth for your kids as they experience many new physical, emotional and intellectual changes that are all a part of the normal transition into adulthood. It’s also a confusing and stressful time for many families, especially when your teenager decides to take on meal planning on their own. When it comes to food, teens are quick to learn what you eat has an impact on your weight, how your body looks, and how your social identity is crafted based on your choices. Mainstream and social media influences may weigh strongly on their decision to engage in practices like becoming a vegan, going keto, taking on intermittent fasting, or even going on a juice cleanse. As much as you may be overly concerned, allow your teens the freedom to explore these diets and learn about them. Adolescence is, after all, a time of independence, curiosity and experimentation, and it should be encouraged within reasonable and safe limits.
However, keep an eye out for extreme weight gain or loss, sleep problems, or rapid and drastic changes in personality. These may be some early warning signs of poor nutrition practices. Also, be on the look out for abnormal signs like drastic body weight fluctuations, constant fatigue, knuckle sores, callouses or scars, tooth or gum decay, mouth sores, an obsession with body size and shape, meal skipping and starvation. These signs may signal an eating disorder that requires specialized intervention. For the best health and nutrition guidance, reach out to your family doctor and dietitian.
Food and eating may be one of the biggest challenges you face at home as a parent but use this opportunity to learn with your teen and try to understand the issues they are going through. Are food choices being linked to their social identity? Personal beliefs and values? Peer pressure? Their level of confidence in their physical appearance? As a parent, you may find it difficult to comprehend but the best thing you can do is listen, empathize and provide an outlet for them to talk. As hard as it may be, try to facilitate these difficult conversations on food, size, weight, and body image. Ask questions, actively listen, and see if your teen is willing to work towards a mutual goal when it comes to eating and meeting nutritional needs.
Try not to be overly opinionated or bossy as this may close off any opportunity for dialogue. Rather, your role is to connect, guide and support your teen towards developing healthier eating habits, a good relationship with food and with their own body. Remind your teenager that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that everyone experiences this differently and at different ages. Go one step further and be an advocate for weight neutrality and body positivity. Being weight neutral means you focus less on BMI (body mass index) and more on lifestyle behaviours and changes. For example, this may mean focusing on eating well, exercising more and feeling good compared to an emphasis on food and its direct relation to weight gain or loss. In the context of anorexia, it could mean promoting positive behaviours like eating two small meals a day, compared to using weight as an indicator of one’s success. Meanwhile, being body positive means we respect all bodies, whether they are big, thin, short, tall, abled-bodied or not. It’s respecting who we are as unique and imperfect individuals, whatever that size may be. When we make food choices through the lens of body positivity, we eat because it serves our health and well-being on the inside rather than how it impacts our outer physical appearance.
4 ) Supplement Considerations
If your child or teenager is eating a well-balanced diet and growing normally, try to have your child get their vitamins and minerals through food and drink whenever possible. Special considerations for supplementation should be made when there is risk for nutrient deficiencies. For example, children who follow vegetarian or vegan diets require vitamin B12 supplementation because this vitamin is only found in animal sources. Those living with celiac disease, gastrointestinal diseases or syndromes may need supplementation because they are at higher risk for nutrient deficiency due to their impaired ability to absorb certain nutrients in the gut. Additionally, those who have poor appetite, take certain medications or have chronic conditions that interfere with food intake may require supplementation to meet their daily needs. In these instances, supplementation may be needed.
If you’re providing your child with a well-balanced diet that includes dairy or dairy alternatives, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and protein-based foods but your child is very restrictive in their eating, you may want to ask your dietitian about supplementing. The key nutrients of concern for children and teens are iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A and vitamin B. Connect with your dietitian and see if any of these vitamins need to be added to support your child’s or your teen’s personal growth and development.
Rosanna Lee is a Canadian and US-trained Registered Dietitian currently practicing in the Greater Toronto Area. Her diverse interests include community nutrition education, public health advocacy and research. Rosanna has worked alongside Global News, Huffington Post, Healthy Directions Magazine, Healthy Living Magazine and the Toronto Vegetarian Association. At present, Rosanna is actively involved with several social enterprise start-ups that promote empowered and healthier communities.