1 June 2008

Dr David’s Tips for Raising Healthy Kids

So you think you can dance?
There's no two ways about it. You can. So shake it.

I am often asked the following question: ‘Isn’t obesity mostly a question of biology? If you happen to be born with “fat genes,” isn’t there really very little you can do about it?’ It can seem overwhelmingly difficult to maintain a healthy body weight in countries like the US, Canada, Australia and the UK today. But this hasn’t always been the case. Since World War II, most people in America and Europe have had plenty to eat, but obesity rates didn’t start rising until the 1970s in the United States and the 1980s or 1990s in Europe.


Just as there are biological forces that push body weight up, there are powerful forces that keep weight down. Just think about having a large Thanksgiving dinner: afterwards, you didn’t want to even look at food for a while, and you probably ate less the next day. The bottom line is that the obesity epidemic is caused by our environment, not our genes. If we could return to the environmental conditions of the 1960s, the obesity epidemic would vanish. It may take some time to make the world a healthier place to live. But until then, we can create a protective environment around our children at home. Not too many surprises here in the following list.

  • Stock up on good food: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, fish, lean protein, reduced-fat dairy products.
  • Don't let junk food such as cookies, cakes, sweetened cereals and sugary drinks through the front door (or the back one). Save treats for special occasions: You don't have to give up sweets entirely, but go out for them instead of having them at home.
  • Avoid fast food. We did a study that showed overweight teens consume about 400 more calories on a day when they consume fast food compared with a day in which they don't.
  • Make physical activity the focus of the home instead of television. Don't allow TVs in the kitchen or bedrooms. Instead, give children the basic tools to be active: jump ropes, balls, baseball gloves, Frisbees, cricket bats, tennis rackets, bikes, skate boards, surf boards. And get out there and have some fun too. Remember, if you are active, your kids will follow your example.
And here's the best bit, saved for last.
  • Shake it! Have fun. Encourage your kids to dance. When kids are having fun, they are not thinking about it as exercise. As you know, I’m not a fan of sedentary stuff like watching TV, but perhaps reality shows like ‘So you think you can dance’ can play a part in getting more kids moving more.

– Dr David Ludwig is Director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) program at Children’s Hospital Boston and author of Ending the Food Fight