Dear Dietitian: Childhood Obesity

Leanne McCrate

Dear Dietitian,

My son is in the fourth grade and is beginning to form unhealthy eating habits. He eats junk food while sitting in front of the computer. He is getting chubby, and I worry that he will get in these patterns for life. Can you help?


Worried Mom

Dear Mom,

You are wise to start acting now. Behavior patterns are easier to modify when they are "nipped in the bud." According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the obesity rate among American children ages 2-19 is 18.5 percent. That's about 14 million children!

Although the rate continues to rise, it has slowed down in recent years. The causes of obesity are multiple: eating more calories than the body needs, too little exercise, genetics, and behavioral responses.

Eating healthy does not mean eating all things green. It is eating a variety of foods that you love. Just as with adults, children should eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.

The root causes of obesity are eating too much and exercising too little. In our busy lives, demand for convenience foods has risen. Foods like pizza, pot pies, anything you put in the microwave and your meal is ready in five minutes, tend to be high in fat, calories, and sodium.

The same goes for fast food. Many people grab something on their way home from work instead of cooking a homemade meal.

Planning ahead is key to a healthy diet. Write down meal plans at the beginning of the week. Side dishes, such as salads or mashed potatoes can be used for multiple meals, easing the task. Fresh vegetables are simple. Corn on the cob, sugar snap peas, green beans almandine - yum!

Casseroles can be made ahead of time. Delicious meals can be made in the slow cooker. Another important part of healthy nutrition is to have healthy snacks on hand and visible. Examples include a fresh fruit bowl, low fat, low sugar yogurt, veggies and hummus, or a sandwich made with lean meat or peanut butter.

Avoid sugary drinks. That sentence deserves to stand alone.

It is important for families to eat together, not just for nutritious reasons but also for getting to know one another. Other benefits of eating together include better academic performance, fewer behavioral problems, and less risky behaviors (drugs, sex, alcohol).

The second root cause of obesity is lack of physical activity. Gone are the days of labor-intensive work on the farm where people were constantly moving their bodies and burning calories. How many of us walk to work or to school? Exercise has to be a part of the plan, and it’s a great way to build family community.

Go for a walk with the family, or play a sport together. Some of my favorite childhood memories are when we took the boat out and water skied until we were exhausted!

Limit screen time--television, social media, smartphones, video games. Encourage your child to take up a sport, a musical instrument, art, or reading. These activities build concentration skills and true self-esteem.

Finally, model the behavior you want to see in your child. Be positive and reward healthy behavior. Be patient and remember, change happens over time, not overnight!


Dear Dietitian

Leanne McCrate, RD, LD, CNSC, aka Dear Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate the public on sound, evidence-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her at