SPRINGFIELD — The number of obese children in Illinois has stabilized, but half of today’s 8-year olds are still on track to become obese by the year 2030.
“I’m very concerned,” Dr. Amy Christison, a pediatrician and obesity specialist, said. “We have finally reached the generation of children that will not live longer than their parents,” she said.
Overweight children are much more likely to develop life-shortening conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, she said. Those conditions also impair the quality of a person’s life — something no parent wants for their child.
So what should a parent do if their 5-year-old is heavier than average?
“I tell parents that both of us want the child to be strong and healthy for the rest of their life. This is such a great opportunity because we can change what the future looks like for that 5-year old by working on healthy habits,” Christison said.
Putting the child on a diet is not the answer, Christison stated.
“It is very complicated and there is not one answer or another,” she said. “I work with severely ill children and I never use the word ‘diet.’ I tell them to ‘Play and play and play.”
Movement is critical, she notes.
“We’re finding that your average child today has less muscle mass than the average child did ten years ago because they are sitting all the time,” she said.
More play time and less sedentary screen time is her prescription for all children — no matter how much they weigh.
One of Christison’s weight control tips for children may surprise people: Help the child get more quality sleep. Sleep is critical for metabolism and hunger and satiety, she said.
“Children today have about an hour less of sleep on average than they did 10 years ago,” Christison said.
She jokes with her child patients,“Don’t let the Ghrelin monster get you.”
When people don’t get enough sleep, the gut hormone ghrelin goes up and it makes them hungrier, she explained.
“People who don’t sleep as well tend to crave junkier foods and more of it,” she said.
Christison talks to her child patients about how food nourishes their bodies and how eating fruits and vegetables will make them strong and healthy. She encourages children to have a fruit or vegetable choice at every meal. That way they can eat more food and feel full rather than deprived, she said.
“I always tell people ‘there’s no food out there that is evil,’” she said. “It’s all about balance and how often.”
Don’t make chips a forbidden food but think about how to get a crunchy, salty fix from other foods with less fat and more fiber, she said.
Another critical recommendation: limit sugary drinks – including juice.
“It’s amazing how many extra calories we drink in our beverages and how that adds to our insulin resistance and our diabetes risk,” Christison said.