The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The 3 Most Significant Risk Factors for Child Obesity

Researchers identify 3 surprising primary risks for childhood obesity.

YUM! Make fruits and vegetables seem desirable to children.
I have a nutrition chapter in my book The Athlete’s Way which explores the complex psychology of eating a healthier diet and maintaining a healthy weight. Most of us know what healthy foods are and what we ‘should and should not eat.’ I focus on the importance of portion control, intuitive eating, calories in/calories out, and various types of physical activity to keep the metabolism high. These are the key ingredients for maintaining a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) for sports and for life.

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Early in my athletic career I was completely obsessed with my diet. I considered my body to be a ‘temple’ and was maniacal about nourishing it with an absolutely perfect diet. My rules were rigid and my list of forbidden foods was extensive. Of course, this made me totally neurotic and no fun to be around. It also sabotaged my atheltic mindset and ability to create flow and superfluidity. I was too uptight.

Never Forbid Foods or Make Them Taboo

When the strength of a craving would overtake my willpower, and I allowed myself to eat a brownie, a floodgate would open and I would lose self-control. Instead of eating one brownie, I wanted to eat the whole tray. Luckily, I never developed an eating disorder, or exercise bulimia, but realized that I had to take a more laid back approach. Over time through trial and error, I learned that if I allowed myself to eat half a brownie or any food that I craved in moderation that it broke this cycle of cravings and bingeing.

Once I stopped forbidding foods, suddenly I didn’t crave brownies or sugar anymore and fell into an intuitive pattern of eating based on my appetite and any cravings I had on a given day. This became a winning formula for me and is one reason I was able to accomplish the things I did as an ultra-endurance athlete. These lessons apply to people of all ages and walks of life.

I start the nutrition chapter of The Athlete’s Way with a quote by French author François Rochefoucauld who said, “To safeguard one’s health at the cost of too strict a diet is a tiresome illness indeed.”

In many ways, this sums up my philosophy of making healthy options but not being neurotic or obsessive about strict dietary regulations. There are many nutrition tips in this chapter, but one of the most important is to ban the idea of going on a diet, and the importance of never forbidding particular foods. Anytime you completely forbid a food you or your child are going to crave it. No food should ever be taboo.

Harvard Medical School's "Healthy Eating Plate"
In terms of specific dietary guidelines—I don’t like rigid rules or recommend ever changing your diet radically based on a food fad. Eating healthy is common sense. The only dietary recommendations I give in my book are to “Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and fish, and drink plenty of water.” Again, these are loose guidelines. I was a vegetarian for almost a decade and realize that meats, fish, or dairy are not universally necessary for a healthy diet.

Advice to Parents: Set An Example, Early Bedtime, and Don’t Forbid Foods.

As the father of a 6-year-old I am well aware of all the minefields and booby traps that go along with trying to encourage your child to eat healthy foods. It’s always going to be a psychologically tricky landscape to self-motivate children to make healthier food choices.

A fascinating new study from the University of Illinois titled “Risk Factors for Overweight/Obesity in Preschool Children: An Ecological Approach” has discovered three unexpected risk factors most highly correlated to child obesity in preschoolers. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the three most significant risk factors that lead to obesity are not really directly food related.

  1. Inadequate sleep.
  2. A parent with a BMI that classifies the mom or dad as overweight or obese.
  3. Parental restriction of a child's eating in order to control his or her weight.

Brent McBride, who is a professor of human development and director of the university's Child Development Laboratory describes the study saying, "We looked at 22 variables that had previously been identified as predictors of child obesity, and the three that emerged as strong predictors did so even as we took into account the influence of the other 19. Their strong showing gives us confidence that these are the most important risk factors to address."

As a result of their analysis, McBride and nutritional sciences graduate student Dipti Dev offer some recommendations for families. “Parents should recognize that their food preferences are being passed along to their children and that these tastes are established in the preschool years,” Dev said.

"What's exciting here is that these risk factors are malleable and provide a road map for developing interventions that can lead to a possible reduction in children's weight status. We should focus on convincing parents to improve their own health status, to change the food environment of the home so that healthy foods are readily available and unhealthy foods are not, and to encourage an early bedtime," he added.

If you’d like to read more on helping your children get on a regular sleep schedule, please check out my recent Psychology Today blog post titled, “Two Simple Ways to Help Children Sleep Better.”

"If you, as an adult, live in a food environment that allows you to maintain an elevated weight, remember that your child lives in that environment too. Similarly, if you are a sedentary adult, you may be passing on a preference for television watching and computer games instead of playing chasing games with your preschooler or playing in the park," she added.

The researchers emphasize the importance of not restricting your children's access to certain foods because they found it only make them want those foods more. "If kids have never had a chance to eat potato chips regularly, they may overeat them when the food appears at a friend's picnic," McBride said.

They recommend to work on changing the food environment in your home so that a wide variety of healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables are readily available while unhealthy options are not well-stocked in the cabinets and refrigerator. It’s easier to make executive decisions in the supermarket than to practice self-control when you get the munchies at home.

McBride concluded that it’s important to "remember that it takes a certain number of exposures to a food before a child will try it, let alone like it, so you have to offer it to them over and over and over again. And they have to see you eat it over and over."

Conclusion: Self-Motivate Children to Intuitively Make Healthier Food Choices

The places children spend their time are the places that determine their behaviors. As parents we should all strive to create healthy home environments that encourage the healthiest lifestyles and empower our children to make healthier choices.

The researchers recommend, "Don't use food to comfort your children when they are hurt or disappointed, do allow your preschoolers to select their foods as bowls are passed at family-style meals (no pre-plating at the counter—it discourages self-regulation), and encourage all your children to be thoughtful about what they are eating."

Over the past few years I have become involved with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation which was founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation as a response to the growing rate of childhood obesity. The website has terrific resources and advice for anyone who would like to learn more about helping children stay more active and eat healthier.   

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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