Obesity in Children

Staff in early childhood programs should be aware of the significant health challenges associated with excess weight, and ways to prevent children from becoming overweight or obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 20% of children under the age of 5 are already overweight or obese.

Certain groups of people have higher rates of obesity. For example, children who are Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black have higher rates of overweight and obesity than their peers. Differences in obesity rates across various groups may be caused by a lack of access to safe places to play or healthy food, or lower socioeconomic status, among other factors.

Children with obesity are more likely to have obesity as adults. This can lead to lifelong physical and mental health problems, including diabetes and an increased risk of certain cancers. Although many factors influence childhood obesity, these three all contribute to excess weight: too much screen time, lack of mealtime routines, and lack of access to affordable, healthier foods.

With children spending most of their time outside of the home, early childhood programs play a critical role in the health and well-being of the children they serve. It is important to develop tips and strategies to share with families on building the right foundation for healthy active living.

Healthy active living starts with nutrition, which is heavily influenced by the environment where a child lives and plays. Healthy eating is essential to a child’s well-being. Early childhood programs can encourage healthy eating habits by providing support resources for staff to share with families.

What Programs Can Do

Create a Positive Eating Environment

Making enhancements to eating environments helps children develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime. These efforts in early childhood programs may lead to improved nutrition, healthy mealtime routines, and more awareness among children about nutritious foods. Programs can put policies and practices into place to help guide and reinforce the commitment to creating positive mealtime environments. Goals, ongoing progress, and success stories should be shared with staff and families in a planned way.

The Positive Eating Environment Self-assessment is a brief, user-friendly assessment of basic mealtime practices to help early childhood programs evaluate the availability of healthy nutrition and mealtime environments. This tool can be used for staff discussions and policy planning. It is also useful for trainers or technical assistance providers.

Growing Healthy: A Guide for Head Start Health Managers and Families about Healthy Active Living for Young Children is designed to help health managers discover talking points for other staff and home visitors to use with families when discussing how to develop healthy meal routines. It includes suggestions for building healthy active lives.

Growing research shows eating habits begin early in a child’s life, even before birth. Explore the Healthy Eating: Tips for Families for healthy eating guidance to share with families. It offers easy tips to help children learn healthy eating behaviors starting in infancy so these behaviors can become lifelong habits.

Use Movement as a Learning Tool

Studies suggest that preschool-aged children with low levels of active play suffer from adverse health effects, such as higher cholesterol levels and body mass indexes. Also, children learn through play, which enhances attention, memory, self-regulation, and overall academic achievement throughout childhood.

To combat sedentary behaviors and facilitate healthy brain development, it’s important to find ways to incorporate movement throughout the day. Let’s Talk About Movement is a helpful resource with quick and easy ideas for integrating movement, nutrition, and healthy habits into everyday life.

Why play? Here are some of the benefits, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Supports healthy brain development
  • Encourages infants and toddlers to engage in and interact with their environment
  • Allows children to safely explore their fears and practice adult roles
  • Offers a way for children to build relationships with their peers and caregivers

Address Other Health Factors

A lot of factors can influence the weight and overall health of children and their family, such as sleep and screen time. Early childhood programs are in a unique position to offer intervention and prevention for many health behaviors. It’s important to remember that healthy children are ready to learn.

You can find comprehensive national standards for early childhood programs — including standards for obesity prevention that address nutrition, infant feeding, physical activity, and screen time — in Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards.

Families with low income and those who experience food insecurity are especially vulnerable to poor nutrition and obesity. When families face food insecurity, the availability of healthy and safe foods or the ability to get acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways is limited or uncertain. Food insecurity and obesity can co-exist in the same individual, family, or community. Children are especially vulnerable because of their unique health and developmental needs.

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