Minor changes – major results Simple strategies to promote a healthy body weight in kids



By Dr. Joseph Luxbacher



Despite spending more than $60 billionannually on diet and weight loss productsthe latest data from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) shows that Americans are heavier than ever before. Four in ten adults, over 90 million men and women, are clinically classified as obese. To make matters worse, according to the New England Journal of Medicine (July 2017) wealso have the highest level of obesity in children and young adults among the world’s 20 largest countries. The health risks associated with obesity are well documented – heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, joint problems, and even some forms of cancer.  Obesity is a national health problem that is getting worse.

Studies suggest that children who are overweight are much more likely than children of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults. These findings have far reaching implications. Though parents often view baby fat as simply a normal phase in their child’s life, for many it represents the beginning of a lifelong struggle with obesity.  Surprisingly, many studies demonstrate that there is not a big difference in the amount of foodeaten or amount of physical activity performed between obese and non-obese kids.  Instead, it is the cumulative effect of small and seemingly insignificant differences in eating and activity habits that, over time, lead to excessive weight gain.   Healthy dietary habits coupled with regular physical activity are two proven ways of reducing the likelihood of kids developing the risk factors listed above.

The Basics of Weight Gain

It is important to consider that weight gain (and loss) are both the result of an energy imbalance.When you consume more calories (energy) from foods and beverages than the body requires for healthy functioning, growth, and physical activity, the excess is stored as fat.  Consuming 3500 calories above and beyond energy expenditure, whether the excess occurs over a period of days, weeks, or even months, results in the deposition of one pound of body fat. The process works just as effectively in reverse, and therein is the key to achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight.

A single behavior that eliminates 100 calories a day, or conversely burns an additional 100 calories, will result fat loss of approximately 10 pounds over the course of a year.  Cutting 100 calories can be easily accomplished by replacing a large glass of whole (4% fat) milk with 1% milk, by replacing the usual breakfast donut with an English muffin and fruit spread, or by choosing a bottle of unsweetened tea rather than a can of soda. Likewise, walking for 20 minutes, the distance of approximately 1 mile, will burn approximately 80-100 calories depending on body weight.  Minor adjustments in eating and activity habits can result in major changes in body weight over time.  The key – replace habits that work against us with habits that work for us.

Slimming Strategies

There are myriad ways to reduce calorie intake without sacrificing portion size, variety, or taste of food. Likewise, there are a variety of simple strategies to increase calories burned each day.  The first step is to analyze your child’s eating and activity habits and determine where subtle changes will make a difference. The strategies that follow will promote fat loss in kids and also provide a framework for healthy family eating.

#1. Limit liquid calories.

This should be the starting point for most kids.  An 8-ounce glass of orange juice or energy drink contain significant amounts of sugar.  When possible choose lower calorie alternatives like unsweetened tea and bottled water.   If they must drink fruit juice, then dilute it with water to reduce the calorie and sugar intake. Regular soda really has no place in a healthy child’s diet.  The mix of sugar, artificial color, and chemicals provide no nutritional value whatsoever – only extra calories.

#2. Make smart food choices.

Replace high calorie foods with similar low-calorie alternatives. For example, choose unbuttered versus buttered popcorn, steamed versus fried veggies, pretzels versus potato chips, egg-whites verses egg yolks, and low-fat frozen yogurt versus ice cream.  Be creative. There is no need to eliminate any type of food.

#3.  Consider condiments.

What we put on foods often transforms the meal from a healthy low-calorie dish to a high-calorie entrée. High calorie high-fat toppings include butter, margarine, gravy, mayonnaise, and creamy salad dressing. Choosing lower calorie alternatives such as light margarine, mustard, vinegar and oil dressing, marinara, and low-cal mayonnaise will reduce calories substantially.

#4.  Heart Healthy Food Prep

How we prepare foods can significantly impact the calorie count.  A baked, broiled, or boiled potato contains approximately 150 to 200 calories. That same potato, when cut into strips and prepared as French fries, may have three times the number of calories, mainly due to the frying oil. Baking, broiling, steaming, and grilling are your best choices for preparing vegetables, poultry, red meat, and fish.

#5.  Walk, Don’t Ride

Walking is an excellent form of physical activity that strengthens bones, improves cardiovascular function, and burns calories. When reasonable and safe it is good practice for kids to walk rather than ride– unless they are riding a bike! Adding only 1000 steps to their daily travels (10 minutes of walking) can burn 40 to 50 calories daily and translates into a 5-pound weight loss over the course of a year.

#6. Practice Functional Fitness.

“Functional fitness” can be defined as normal everyday physical activity that achieves an objective above and beyond simply burning calories. For example, mowing the lawn or raking leaves for 20-25 minutes can burn 75 to 100 calories depending upon the child’s body weight and intensity of the activity.

Keep in mind that the calorie-cutting effects of a healthy low-fat diet coupled with the calorie-burning effects of regular physical activity are cumulative.  Cutting 50 calories here and burning 50 calories there, if done on a regular basis, will result in significant weight loss and improved wellness over time. This is the safest and surest method successfully combating the epidemic of obesity facing American children.

Dr. Joseph Luxbacher has more than three decades of experience in the fields of health, fitness, and competitive athletics. He holds a PhD in Health, Physical and Recreation Education from the University of Pittsburgh and has authored several books with Human Kinetics Publishing. Dr. Luxbacher conducts workshops and is a frequent speaker on fitness, exercise and weight management. He can be reached at joseph.luxbacher@gmail.com