Every child needs to learn the ABC’s of life. When it comes to establishing healthy habits, you can teach them how to “ABCDE” (Act Boldly to Change Diet and Exercise).
Why is this important?
Good nutrition and plenty of exercise are the building blocks for strong growth, healthy development and lifelong wellbeing for children.
These days, too many children are not receiving the proper nutrition or enough exercise:
They are not eating enough — an estimated 16 to 17 million children live in homes where they are at risk of going hungry (approximately one in six households).
They are not eating enough healthy food — an estimated one in three children are overweight and about one in six (ages six to 17) are obese.
They are not getting enough exercise — only 30 percent of children (aged six to 17) participated in 20 minutes plus of vigorous physical activity on a daily basis. Children need to get 60 minutes of exercise on a daily basis.
What are the benefits of good nutrition and daily exercise for kids?
Mental and behavioral benefits
Good nutrition is essential to healthy brain development in children which is, of course, critical to learning.
Children who exercise regularly and eat healthily are likely to:
perform better academically
feel better about themselves, their bodies and their abilities
cope with stress and regulate their emotions better
avoid feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
Establishing healthy eating and exercise habits early in life can lead to long term healthy behavior in adulthood.
Children need a wide variety of nutrients (e.g., protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, minerals and vitamins) to assist in their daily growth and development and to protect them from childhood illnesses.
Daily exercise also helps children to build stronger muscles and bones and limit excess body fat.
Healthy eating also cuts down on risk for cavities, eating disorders and unhealthy weight control behaviors (i.e., fasting, skipping meals, eating very little food, vomiting, using diet pills, laxatives or diuretics), malnutrition and iron deficiency.
Healthy eating and consistent physical activity help to prevent chronic illnesses that appear in adulthood associated with obesity, e.g., heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and several forms of cancer.
What are the effects of different settings on the eating and exercise habits of kids?
In the home
Lack of access to healthy, wholesome foods and inadequate physical activity contributes to kids becoming overweight and not getting adequate nutrition for their growth and development. Children need at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity in the form of physical play or sports.
Hunger — kids who do not get enough to eat are at risk of developing chronic health conditions, behavioral problems, academic struggles, anxiety, depression and even obesity especially if they only have access to poor quality processed food.
Unhealthy weight control behaviors have been found to co-occur with obesity. Many adolescents, particularly teenage girls, have body image concerns and engage in these behaviors threatening both their physical and mental health.
Media effects from the following:
Food advertising targeted at children is dominated by commercials for unhealthy food (e.g., candy, sugary cereals, sugary beverages, processed snack foods, fast food restaurants). Food advertising is pervasive and can be found on multiple media platforms (TV, web and even embedded in computer games).
Advertising by other industries often objectifies girls and women, contributing to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.
Television viewing is linked to childhood obesity because it displaces physical activity, increases snacking behavior while watching, exposes kids to potentially harmful advertising and reduces their resting metabolism.
Risks to academic achievement — result from children not getting adequate nutrition and physical activity. Hunger can be particularly damaging to children’s progress in school and cognitive development overall.
Overabundance of unhealthy foods — too many schools offer poor nutritional choices in the form of unhealthy school lunches or even vending machines filled with candy, processed snacks and sugary beverages.
Lack of opportunities for physical activity — many schools have scaled back requirements for a daily recess and do not prioritize physical education opportunities for children at every age.
Peer behaviors — peers can serve as remarkably powerful role models for children and may share their unhealthy eating or exercise habits with them.
Stigma of being overweight — can lead to social and psychological distress (e.g., depression, low self esteem). Bullying and teasing from peers can be particularly damaging and teachers and school staff may attribute less desirable personality characteristics to obese youth and their families.
In the neighborhood
Overabundance of unhealthy foods – there are a growing number of communities called “food deserts” where supermarkets and grocery stores are scarce or charge higher prices for healthy foods than processed foods. In addition, many underserved communities are populated with fast food restaurants that are often located near schools and playgrounds.
The built environment – lack of adequate and safe parks, bike lanes, playgrounds, recreational facilities, or walkways can restrict opportunities for children and teens to get exercise.
Why are you critical to establishing healthy behaviors in your kids?
You are role models
Children are instinctively primed to imitate their parents and caregivers. They are incredibly sensitive to the messages that are sent about eating and exercise. You exert the most influence on your children’s behavior and can model healthy attitudes and habits toward food and physical activity that persist as they grow up.
You are gatekeepers
Parents and caregivers control the types of food children have access to in the home and can maximize access to healthy, wholesome foods (fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy).
You can also monitor children’s diet, exercise, and limit media consumption (TV/video watching, web surfing and videogames).
You are taste-setters
Parents and caregivers significantly influence the likes and dislikes that children attach to certain foods. These influences can last a lifetime. Each of us can probably remember a favorite home cooked meal from our childhood. There is even research that suggests that this begins in infancy; children who are breastfed may be exposed to different flavors in their mother’s breast milk than the sugars and fats in infant formula. Breastfeeding may provide protection from the development of obesity.
Eating with your children at regular family mealtimes can help establish positive nutrition habits and healthy weights for children.
You are advocates
Parents and caregivers can push local leaders to introduce affordable transportation (e.g., bus or shuttle lines) to supermarkets or grocery stores if there are none in their communities.
You can call for the construction of parks or playgrounds and restriction of fast food places in your neighborhood.
You can push school administrators to introduce after-school programs that incorporate physical activity or nutrition education, healthier school lunches, and policies that eliminate the use of vending machines on school grounds.
You along with members of your community can volunteer to coach afterschool sports.
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