New Brunswick

Childhood obesity experts share different ways to get kids to eat better

From less screen time to zero sugary drinks, experts weigh in on the best ways to improve kids' eating habits.

If changes aren't made now, kids will face chronic health issues down the road, conference hears

Christine Roherty of the Heart and Stroke Foundation in New Brunswick, which organized the Promoting Healthy Weights in Children conference, says there are things parents can do right now to encourage healthier habits for kids. (Kate Letterick/CBC News )

Christine Roherty says it's no secret New Brunswick has some of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country.

And the vice-president of health promotion for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of New Brunswick said it will take a lot to change that.

But she's hoping parents will embrace the "5-2-1-0" message, which she explained this way: "They should be encouraging five vegetables and fruit every day, to really limit their screen time for children to no more than two hours, that they get an hour of good quality physical activity, so that really intense physical activity every day. And zero sugary drinks." 

Roherty was taking part in the Moncton conference on Promoting Healthy Weights in Children, which looks at children's eating habits and ways to combat obesity.

The conference is designed for health-care professionals, policy makers and educators.

Kim Raine, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Alberta, said environment plays a big role in shaping eating behaviour, and in some cases, kids don't have the chance to make healthy choices.

Kim Raine, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Alberta, says environment plays a big role in shaping eating behaviour. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News )

"So, for example, you take your kids to play hockey, to go to swimming lessons, to play soccer, and you come out of the recreation facility and they're hungry and thirsty," Raine said. "What are the choices that they have available?"

In Alberta, people working on the issue have developed a report card that they hope to spread nationwide, she said. 

"In Alberta, recreation facilities got a D because they don't really offer healthy choices for kids," Raine said. "What can we do to make it better for kids, to allow them to have those healthy choices?"

She said it's not enough to teach kids about good nutrition and physical activity and tell parents what should be done.

"It's much more complex than that. So I think we really have to take a whole of society approach to think about 'How do we deal with this problem?'"

Mary McKenna, a professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, said positive change is happening in some schools in the province.

With additions like gardens and salad bars, kids are learning valuable lessons, she said.

Mary McKenna, a professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick, says interesting things are happening around healthy eating at some schools in the province. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News )

She pointed to a recent visit to École Abbey-Landry in Memramcook, where some students munched on carrots from the garden, while others prepared lunch with the fresh produce.

"So that's what school is now," McKenna said. "There's a science and there's a socialization, there's the health, it's all being wrapped up in this really positive package." 

While there are different initiatives happening in the province, it would be good to be able to co-ordinate efforts as part of educational mandates.

Roherty, of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said it will take time to lower child-obesity rates.

But she hopes the 5-2-1-0 message catches on with parents. 

More fruits and vegetables, a limit on screen time, and good physical activity can make a difference. Cutting out sugary drinks is also important.

"We do know that the majority of children are consuming a significant number of sugary drinks, whether they be sweetened dairy or milk alternative products or maybe they're pop. Or maybe it's, you know, sports drinks, energy drinks. Those are things that we really should be minimizing."

Roherty said ignoring the problem could have serious consequences down the road.

"These unhealthy behaviours can lead to chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and so we don't want our children to be faced with a lifetime of chronic conditions. 

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