DEAR DR. BLONZ: Our only child just turned 13. He continues to grow, but there is a bit more of him than we would like. Our doctor has mentioned that he is in the upper percentiles for his age, but did not seem overly concerned after a recent visit.
There is no obesity in the family; my husband and I have a few extra pounds here and there, but we eat well and go for walks most days. Our son is active and eats pretty well, but spends a bit more time online than most in his circle. When pressed, he admits to being aware of the issue, but shows little motivation to make changes. -- Anonymous, via email
DEAR ANONYMOUS: In general, it's best to avoid excess weight than face the challenge of taking it off after it's become a long-term resident. At the same time, it is not uncommon for children to go through periods where they carry a little extra weight; these often precede an impending growth spurt and are not necessarily indicative of long-term problems.
That said, childhood obesity remains a problem in this country, affecting about 1 in 5 children aged 2 to 19. This means more children are setting a course toward heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer and other chronic health problems that can plague them as adults. (See the Center For Disease Control and Prevention's "Childhood Obesity Facts" page at b.link/nqr37x.)
There can be genetic factors, but that's not the sole cause. Activity patterns and food choices are key. For those in their early years, it's essential to keep track of time spent being physically active versus that spent online with social media, gaming and television. An informative study in the journal Pediatrics reported that a child's metabolic rate, the rate at which the body burns calories, tends to slow when the child is planted in front of a screen. Surprisingly, this rate decrease was significantly larger than the normal metabolic slowdown observed during rest.
Online activities -- social media, app-based video games, etc. -- can be mentally stimulating, but tend to be physically passive. Purveyors of these activities devise clever ways to push ads and links using language, music and graphics tailored to their young audience. Likewise, the food industry has an expansive children's market; one need only look up and down the aisles at the market to see which items are purposefully placed at kids-eye level. Fast-food restaurants, of course, have long offered kid-focused freebies.
Bribing children to "eat their vegetables" or "clean their plates" using treats or computer time as a reward can distort the value of healthful eating. A family strategy might be considered that includes "budgets" for various types of food, online time and physical activities.
Design goals and rewards tailored for each individual, plus some rewards that will appeal to all. Whether it's a desired family trip, a large purchase or special family activity, work out the details together, ensuring everyone follows the same rules. The idea is to set up a win-win situation with pride of accomplishment along the road to better health.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.