Promoting health among children and adolescents requires collective, community-wide efforts. The good news for residents of McKinney is that our city is leading the way. McKinney aspires to be one of the healthiest communities in the nation. This is one reason it is an extraordinary place to live. The parks, schools, recreational amenities, family-centered events, Farmer’s Markets and fitness centers offer limitless opportunities for improving wellness among families.
As a result, the City of McKinney is recognized as one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People. This award was bestowed because of programs that make the city an exceptional place for children to live, learn and grow. One such initiative is the Get Fit McKinney Health Challenge in which the City, McKinney Independent School District (MISD) and several non-profit and healthcare organizations have partnered to organize community events that focus on health and wellness.
The Obesity Crisis
Obesity is on the rise across the country, and the state of Texas is no exception. In fact, Texas ranks as the 11th most obese state in the nation, with nearly one-third of adults classified as obese (Note: that is obese, not simply overweight).
Obesity has also become more common among children and adolescents. According to one report, 40 percent of school children in Texas are overweight or obese. Even more alarming is that severe consequences of excess weight are being experienced by youth. Childhood obesity is a leading cause of early type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease.
Prevention of obesity is the most effective strategy for combating this epidemic. And the best place to begin is among our impressionable youngsters.
Two McKinney elementary schools, Minshew and Walker, are recognized as Healthy Zone Schools because of their determination to encourage health and wellness among their pupils. Susie Towber, Principal at Minshew Elementary, says “It is very important to teach students and get them excited about nutrition and exercise at a young age.” For example, members of the school’s walking club are running/walking towards a marathon. According to Towber, “The students are excited about exercise.”
A Two-Pronged Approach
Maintaining optimal health requires a two-pronged approach: eating healthfully and being physically active. To help children develop proper eating habits, parents can encourage attentiveness to hunger and fullness cues; serve wholesome breakfasts, lunches and snacks; and make family meals a priority. Ensuring children engage in plenty of physical activity while limiting screen time is also vitally important to their well-being.
Hunger and Fullness Cues
Young children eat only if they are hungry, and once full, they refuse another bite. Unknowingly, parents may negatively influence youngsters by insisting that, “You must finish your meal.” By doing so, we train children to ignore their inborn signals of satiety. Eventually this becomes a habit, resulting in the tendency to overeat.
Instead, parents should encourage Children to pay attention and respond to their internal hunger and fullness cues. Although it is tempting, avoid coaxing your baby to finish the last couple pieces of food in the bowl if she is refusing. As your child gets older, remind her to tune in to her feelings of hunger and fullness. Don’t persuade her to eat if she is not hungry, or to finish all the food on her plate if she feels full. If children establish this practice early on, they are likely to remain sensitive to their hunger and fullness signals as they grow up.
Wholesome Breakfasts, Lunches and Snacks
To instill healthy eating habits, serve kids a well-balanced breakfast and wholesome lunches and snacks every day. This requires decreasing the use of processed foods, which are high in sugar, salt, fat, preservatives and/or additives but low in nutrients. This also means limiting children’s consumption of sweetened beverages, including juice; plain water is the beverage of choice. A wholesome alternative to relying on prepackaged convenience foods is offering children fresh fruits and vegetables at each meal and snack. They are quick and easy to prepare yet provide an array of nutritional benefits.
Julie Kuehn is a registered dietitian and mother in McKinney and admits, “It is harder than ever for parents to resist the prepackaged, ready-to-eat lunches and snacks available when we are so time-crunched. But with a little planning on your grocery list, you can make sure you have healthy and quick things available. A great way to vary the boring sandwich is to use whole wheat wraps piled with veggies, black beans and cheese. You may be surprised what your kids will eat if you start introducing them into their diet.” She adds, “Let them be a part of the food choices, but those choices should be healthy. Take them to the Farmer’s Market and let them choose what they want.”
Horizon Park is just one of the many public parks available for play and exercise. Even with training wheels she’s still working those growing muscles.
Family meals are beneficial for a myriad of reasons. For one, families who make a habit of eating together typically have healthier diets. Children and adolescents who regularly enjoy meals with their families have significantly better nutritional intakes and lower risk of being overweight.
Participating in family meals also builds connectedness among family members, promotes children’s emotional well-being, enhances academic performance and allows parents to act as role models. For example, children and teenagers who consistently eat dinner with their families have a lower chance of engaging in risky behaviors, including drug use.
Routinely sharing meals with his family improves a child’s quality of life in countless ways. Thus, it is critical to make regular family meals a top priority.
Physical Activity and Screen Time
Encourage kids and teens to be active for at least one hour every day. Ideas include going to the park, riding bikes, playing in the backyard, walking to/from school, involvement in an extracurricular sport or activity, constructing an obstacle course, and movement games like tag. Keep it simple. As Kuehn recommends, “Family walks after dinner are a great way to get active and extend dinnertime conversation.”
Along with ensuring adequate physical activity, it is imperative to limit screen time among youth of all ages. This refers to the total amount of time spent in front of television, videos, video games, computers, smartphones and tablets. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day; ideally, one hour or less on school days. Youngsters under the age of two should not be exposed to any screens at all. Sitting in front of a screen not only replaces more active pursuits, but promotes the consumption of unhealthy foods.
Healthy habits are foundational life skills. Children are more likely to adopt and practice beneficial eating and exercise habits throughout their lifetime if parents instill them early on. By taking action today, we set our children up for a lifetime of good health. And for families that live in McKinney, this task has been made easier!
About the Author: Keeley Drotz is a registered dietitian and mother who lives in McKinney. With over 10 years of experience, her specialization is working with children and families. She recently published her first book, The Poisoning of Our Children | Fighting the Obesity Epidemic in America, which is about raising healthy children and preventing childhood obesity. Please visit Keeley’s website and blog at PoisoningOurChildren.com.