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Growing up healthy needs action at all ages, pediatrician says

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Mayo Clinic pediatrician Dr. Brian Lynch said one of the best ways parents can lower their child's risk of obesity is by introducing healthy foods like fruits and vegetables early.

With childhood obesity rates continuing to rise in the United States, there are efforts parents can take to help their own children, as well as systemic changes that can tackle this growing issue, according to a Mayo Clinic pediatrician.

Dr. Brian Lynch is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic, and one of his focus areas is on the prevention of childhood obesity. He said obesity is a big problem right now for kids, leading to health concerns down the road like heart conditions, sleep issues and depression. We talk more about this in our interview on "Take Care."

“This is what’s really scary, is obesity can then lead to downstream health concerns, both physical health and mental health,” Lynch said.

To help combat these effects, Lynch said parents can help lower their child’s risk of obesity throughout the child’s life.

From birth to 12 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding over formula feeding. Lynch said this is because of the strong evidence that shows breastfeeding can help prevent obesity due to its chemical makeup and other factors.

“If fed by breast, it helps limit the amount of volumes of feeds that infants will take. With a bottle, that’s more difficult,” Lynch said. “But even for infants who are fed breast milk by bottle, their obesity risk is also less.”

In addition to breastfeeding, Lynch said, parents should limit solid food initiation until their child is 6 months old and limit comfort feeding.

The 2-5 age range is crucial for helping to instill healthy eating habits in children, Lynch said, which include modeling good eating habits and introducing plenty of healthy foods. Children should be eating natural foods, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and avoiding sugar-sweetened drinks.

“In addition to the type of food you introduce, it’s really important to have family meal times,” Lynch said. “Make meals fun.”

This “fun” approach, he said, means focusing on developing healthy, long-term habits and being supportive rather than emphasizing calorie counts or restricting foods.

As children reach teenage years, it is important to create an environment where they can be successful in healthy eating habits, Lynch said. The focus should be on getting the teenagers interested in healthy foods and limiting access to unhealthy ones.

“If there’s snack foods at home, then people tend to gravitate toward those,” he said. “So, the best thing is try to remove them from the house, and then, everyone in the house doesn’t have access to those.”

Avoiding fast food and having family meals can also make a big difference in any child’s eating habits, Lynch said. Children, from toddlers to teenagers, should have similar diets when it comes to types of foods, with only portion sizes changing as the child grows older.

Another important area for child health is sleep, which Lynch said is not emphasized enough. Getting nine hours of sleep every night can help prevent obesity and provide other health benefits.

“Sleep itself has been shown to be a protective factor for preventing obesity, but it also helps in so many other areas, in terms of mood, academic performance,” Lynch said. “So, we really need to emphasize improving sleep habits and patterns and getting adequate sleep in our childhood populations.”

Though all these efforts are important, it will take more than personal behaviors to change what has become a global problem, Lynch said. Any solutions have to come from a public health perspective, like taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and limiting advertising of unhealthy foods.

“Just liked we learn from tobacco smoke, some of the most effective ways to improve diets aren’t based upon individual choices, but they’re based on systemic changes,” Lynch said.