Of course, you would do anything to protect your children. You take them for regular medical checkups, use car seats and seat belts appropriately, and insist upon a helmet when bike riding or skateboarding. But are you protecting them against chronic diseases?
Chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes type 2 and cancer usually emerge during middle age – and most of us find it hard to even think about a time that far ahead in our little ones’ lives. But according to the World Health Organization, it is only after long exposure to unhealthy lifestyle habits that we develop chronic diseases, and if we can instill healthy lifestyle habits early in our children’s lives, thus reducing some of the risk factors, a full 80 percent of premature heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and over 40 percent of cancers could be prevented.
In today’s busy world, with multiple demands on parents and kids alike, helping kids to develop healthy behavior habits is not easy, said Robert Hanks, Ph.D., R.N., an assistant professor at the UTHealth School of Nursing. “…it does take work and planning. However, even small steps are beneficial in the long term in promoting healthy families.”
What are some of the steps you can take? Here are four ideas from the health pros:
Begin early to instill healthy eating habits. It’s never too early, said Jennifer Ritchie, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant who owns Milkalicious, a lactation consulting business in California. “I can tell you that engendering a healthy lifestyle in our kids starts, when possible, with breastfeeding,” she claimed. “Statistics don’t lie, and the statistics tell us that children who are breastfed are far less prone to obesity later in life…”
Obesity, as many of us are aware, leads to chronic conditions like high blood pressure, unstable cholesterol levels and diabetes type 2, all of which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Obesity is also a risk factor for many cancers.
As babies begin eating, it’s important to incorporate healthy foods into their diets, such as fruits and veggies, small amounts of lean meats, dairy foods and whole grains. “In addition,” said Dr. Hanks, “resisting the urge to purchase fast food or snack foods that are poor nutritional choices is key.”
In other words, those foods that are eaten regularly will become, over a lifetime, what your child thinks of as good. And what he hasn’t had very often – like sugary cereals or treats like pastries, cookies, candies and soft drinks, salty snacks and fried foods – will be considered an occasional treat, and not a food to regularly indulge in.
When children get older, food issues should be an important dialogue between parents and children, said Danelle Fisher, MD, Vice Chair of Pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “You can take your children to the grocery store and teach them how to read labels – not everything on the label, but things like the protein, fat and sugar content,” she explained.
One of the most important things to learn to read on food product labels, added Dr. Fisher, is what a serving size is. “You think you’re doing great with eating something without too much sugar or fat,” she said, “until you find out you’ve just consumed three servings of it.”
Parents can make learning about healthy foods fun for their kids, she continued. “Even a toddler can pick out a fruit or vegetable at the grocery store or the farmers market to try this week.”
If you have time and space, kids can help to plant and tend a small garden plot and harvest the produce for meals. According to Dr. Fisher, kids should be involved in the cooking process at age-appropriate levels. Whether it’s helping to cut up veggies, stir the eggs for breakfast or add interesting seasonings, there are many learning opportunities afforded by helping to prepare meals.
And despite the busy family schedule, try to eke out one meal per day to eat as a family as often as possible, she suggested. “Eating meals together as a family increases a child’s awareness of what foods and what serving sizes should be eaten, and it decreases the likelihood of obesity.”
By the time your kids are into their teen years, they’ll be making many of their own food decisions, and you won’t be able to be with them all of the time to see what they’re eating. But if you’ve done your job early on, they’ll likely be eating as they were taught – at least most of the time.
Incorporate physical activity into daily life. “In short, get up and move!” said Dr. Hanks. Encourage walking or biking after school, whether it’s to do errands or exercise the dog. You can also “encourage your children to participate in sports or even participate in chores that require physical activity,” recommended Dr. Hanks.
If your child isn’t interested in team sports, there are a lot of individual sports, too, such as martial arts, swimming, or dancing. If classes don’t fit into your budget, look for less expensive options through your local YMCA or Girls and Boys Club.
And while technology should be limited because it promotes a sedentary lifestyle, “not all technology is a bad influence,” said Dr. Hanks. “For example, [XBox Kinect] can be used for exercise routines and for instructional purposes. Another example of technology being a benefit to increasing activity is the relatively new smart watch concept that can double as an activity tracker.”
Instilling good physical activity habits can also mean teaching the simple things, like walking to the library instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of opting for an elevator, or using a push mower instead of the rider at least some of the time.
Teach stress-busting techniques. More and more research is showing that not only do stress hormones cause us to crave sugar, fat, and starches – like that candy bar you just had to have while working against a deadline – but they also cause physiological changes in the body that lead to chronic health conditions. One example is heart disease; stress hormones cause plaque to build up on blood vessel walls as well as increasing body inflammation, both of which are bad for the ticker.
According to a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, stress hormones may slow metabolism. In the study, women who had experienced one or more stressful events in the day prior to eating a fast food meal burned over 100 fewer calories after consuming the unhealthy food than did women who ate the same meal but reported little or no stress the day before. Stress researchers believe that stress hormones also contribute to fat storage by making insulin levels rise and fat oxidation levels fall.
While kids may have different underlying reasons for stress than adults do (mom and dad’s divorce, that tough test coming up, difficulties at school or with friends), they do experience stress – and the negative effects it has on the body. You can help them to combat stress by teaching activities that relieve it. Blowing bubbles is great even at the toddler age, and simple yoga techniques work well for little ones, too. Older kids can relieve tension with walking or running, listening to and/or dancing to music, or talking it out, either with you or with a mental health professional.
Don’t underestimate your power as a role model. “As a mother and a health practitioner, I believe that a healthy lifestyle for our children comes directly from the example we set by the lifestyle we lead,” said Ritchie. “Balance in what we eat, in how much we exercise, how much we work, and in our emotional lives translates into the same for our children.”
Not only can you be a role model at home with your child, you can be a role model and leader for your entire community by getting involved in health promotion at your child’s school. The Physical Activity Council reports that a full 48 percent of high schools have no PE classes, and recess time for elementary kids is being cut short in favor of increased learning time. And while federal programs and funding have helped many schools move toward healthier meals, many still lack adequate funding for healthier foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Parents can’t assume that schools will promote healthy lifestyle behaviors in their child’s education,” said Dr. Hanks. “They need to advocate for health promotion, whether it be increased physical activity, healthy interactions between students or healthy dietary habits.”
Stay on top of things by attending school administrative meetings and voicing the need for healthy lifestyle behaviors to be incorporated into your child’s education, he suggested.
Once you’ve begun taking some steps toward a healthier family lifestyle, you’ll likely start to see the positive benefits for both your child – and you. And you can rest assured that you’ve done your best to give your child the best chance for a healthy future.
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN