Lisa’s lifestyle is similar to many of my patients. She works a lot of hours at a factory job, never exercises, and eats out for most of her meals because she is too tired to cook, much less clean up after the meal. When she is home for the evening meal, she eats with her partner and their children in front of the television. The menu? Fast food: fried chicken, frozen pizza, burgers and fries, with cake and ice cream for dessert. The nights Lisa does manage to put together a meal, it usually consists of a prepacked frozen meat or main dish accompanied by a boxed side dish and frozen vegetables drowning in cheese.
While the unhealthy lifestyle is clearly taking its toll on Lisa—which is why she is a patient of mine—it is also setting up her children for a lifetime of disease. That’s because children mimic their parents. When mom and dad don’t know how to eat healthy foods or cook a healthy meal, they pass those same poor nutrition standards on their kids.
A healthy lifestyle in kids begins with mom and dad. It’s up to parents to create a better environment for healthy living. It’s up to parents to teach their children the merits of eating well and of good overall health.
Here are five ways to instill better health habits in kids (and in yourself):
- Eat more vegetables and fruit. Vegetables should be a good portion of every meal. But I’m not talking about a salad swimming in a creamy, high-calorie dressing or breaded-and-fried veggies with a dipping sauce. Vegetables taste great all on their own; just combine a few together and sprinkle on some herbs for a nutritious side dish. And fruits are a good choice over baked goods when the sweet tooth strikes.
- Drink more water. Pass up the sugary sodas and fruit juices for a good old-fashioned glass of water. The jury is still out how much water you should consume in a day, but the experts all agree: sufficient water intake is key to good health. A good rule of thumb is eight 8-ounce glasses of water (think “8 x 8”), or at least a half gallon each day.
- Get moving. Regular physical activity helps young bodies grow and older bodies stay in shape. But if you’re new to exercise, it can take time to build up to a regular routine, so start slow. Go for a walk—and take the family. Ride bikes together. Go hiking. Research has shown that being outdoors and getting a little fresh air and sunshine has other benefits as well: it’s calming and lets you think a little clearer.
- Limit screen time. Help your child have a healthier mind and more active lifestyle by limiting TV watching. One study found that American kindergartners who watched TV during the evening meal were more likely to be overweight by the time they were in third grade. Also, adopt a policy of no gadgets when the family sits down for that meal—remove those distractions so that everyone can focus on the conversation.
- Make time for family. A family that gets together regularly for activities like nutritious meals and exercise is going to build closer bonds that can have a tremendous windfall effect. When children eat with the family, they generally have healthier eating habits, a lower risk for obesity, better vocabularies and grades, and better overall health. And when children help prepare the food for a meal, they gain more life skills and learn responsibility for themselves and others.
While unhealthy eating and lack of exercise are bad habits for adults, what’s worse is the impact that lifestyle is going to have on future generations. With all of my patients, I talk about more than just their health conditions. I talk about the changes that they—and their families—must make if they are going to turn around their own diseases and make a difference in their children’s lives.