1. 🥬 Improving access to healthy food
Health and wellness doesn’t happen in the doctor’s office; it happens in the communities where we live and the environments we grow up in. We can’t address our health challenges until we address the food systems that underlie disease.
Nicole told me about California non-profits and local government programs dedicated to expanding access to healthy foods:
The pandemic has been hard on parents. They’ve had to juggle work, childcare, online learning, and still find time to put food on the table. Many parents work long hours and don’t have time to cook. Kids are allowed to fall into bad eating habits.
Dr. Kalil said parents should set guidelines for diet and nutrition: “You don’t want to create more anxiety, turn the kid into someone with phobias or eating disorders like anorexia. But I think parents are there to set guidelines, and we as a society need to set norms, about what you eat and how much you eat.”
Educating parents is the number-one priority for nutritionists working with children, said Dr. Rahnama:
“We need parents to create boundaries and be firm with those rules. Not just say, it’s ok your kid is chubby, they’ll grow out of it. No, they’re pre-diabetic. Kids are developing sleep apnea.”
Parents should understand the long-term health consequences of childhood obesity, said Dr. Kalil. He said he sees patients who at 30 years old are hypertensive and pre-diabetic with thyroid problems:
“Parents need to be giving their children some guidance. They don’t want to traumatize their kids. The real trauma is coming later. All you’re doing is delaying the trauma that’s coming later in life with chronic illness.”
Carley highlighted the importance of sit-down family meals:
“Prioritize family meals. If you have kids living with you, making an effort to schedule time with others in a formal setting is the number one thing that’s been lost. Parents should make whole foods very available and convenient. Keep a bowl of fruit on the table. Assign children the task of cutting vegetables.”
Dr. Rahnama recommends that parents of overweight children start with simple interventions, like eliminating soda:
“The first thing we do is take away any drinks that have calories. Don’t let kids have sugary drinks. There’s a lot more soda intake in low-income families. That’s the best intervention to reduce caloric intake without creating an eating disorder.
Make the small changes where you can, without taking away the three core meals a growing child needs. Take away the excess caloric intake and increase physical activity.”
Nicole, co-founder of LA Children’s Garden, said we need more school programs focused on health and wellness education. She highlighted the impact of giving students access to gardens:
“If every school could have a garden program to get kids out of the classroom, growing their own kale and arugula, they’ll eat it.
Before we started our garden program in LA, these kids didn’t even know what kale and arugula looked like. Now they’ll bring it home and eat it at home. We proved that. We taught them how to cook it with healthy recipes around their families’ background and culture.”
Teaching a kid how to garden can have a profound impact on their health and well-being, said Nicole:
“If a child says, Mom, I grew this kale at school and I want to eat it, then the kids are teaching the parents. I think that’s a better way for it to happen, because then the child will push their parents to eat that way. From middle school to high school kids, that’s what we’ve seen happen.”
Physical fitness programs at schools should expand beyond traditional P.E., said Dr. Kalil. He stressed the importance of sports programs that get kids’ cardiovascular system going, teach them about good health and get them excited about fitness.
From gardening, to nutrition education, to physical fitness: We can study which school health programs are most effective, and replicate them nationwide to support our children.
“It comes down to money and access. We need big companies like Nike to step up and give money to education and helping schools in need. Communities are stepping up and taking care of themselves, not waiting for someone else to figure it out.”
Childhood obesity is a bit like climate change: A huge, complex problem with many causes. We’re not going to solve it overnight. My hope is that by shining a light on the roots of the problem, and studying the interventions and programs that work, we can find ways to move toward possible solutions.