August 23, 2022

Starting the School Year Right: The Importance of Healthy Eating for Children and Adolescents

Fall River, MA – Across the country, the number of children and adolescents experiencing significant weight gain has been steadily growing. There is no single answer to why childhood obesity is increasing, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest several factors. Some of these include school environments, neighborhood design, access to healthy, affordable foods and beverages, and access to safe and convenient places for physical activity.

Autumn Makowski, a registered dietitian with Saint Anne’s outpatient nutrition program, adds another growing factor she is seeing among children in her practice: emotional eating.

“Events of the last few years have stressed families in many ways,” says Autumn. “For children in particular, the Covid pandemic kept them separated from their usual healthy activities for long periods of time. Routines and activities that are so important for social, physical, and emotional health – such as school, sports, time with friends, and even regular meals – were dramatically interrupted. As a result, more and more children have turned to ‘comfort’ foods when feeling sad or anxious, often resulting in rapid weight gain.”

Matthew LeMaitre, MD, medical director of the Steward Center for Weight Control, sees this trend as a long-term problem in the making.

“It’s so important that children learn healthy eating habits, because these are the years when they are sowing the seeds for their future health,” says Dr. LeMaitre. “Obesity is an epidemic. If we can form better habits when we’re young, we can give ourselves a better chance at good health when we’re adults.”

How can parents and caregivers help to prevent or curb obesity?

Jane Sylvestre, a registered dietitian with the Steward Center for Weight Control at Saint Anne’s Hospital, and Autumn Makowski agree that there are ways parents and caregivers can help children maintain healthy habits that may help them avoid becoming overweight adults:

  • Encourage healthy eating habits. Fruits and vegetables, lots of water, very limited sugary drinks, and lean and low-fat selections every day are a great start. Keeping a regular meal schedule, limiting fast food, and controlling portions are also helpful. See the sidebar for some practical and tasty ideas for healthy lunchboxes and snacks.
  • Stay active. Children naturally love to run, jump, and play. Regular activity not only helps with weight management, but also strengthens bones, decreases blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety, and helps build self-esteem.
  • Limit activities that involve sitting. Watching TV, playing video games, or being online should be limited to two hours a day.
  • Get plenty of sleep. The Sleep Foundation notes that research points to a positive association between good sleep and healthy body weight.

If you have questions about your child’s weight, talk to your child’s pediatrician or health care provider for their recommendations.

Packing a healthy lunchbox with a punch

It’s a new school year – a clean start – and an ideal time to plan healthy options for your child’s school lunches and snacks. 

Dietitians Jane Sylvestre and Autumn Makowski offer great advice.

“You can positively influence your child’s health and well-being with lunches that are fun and nutritious,” says Jane.

Autumn advises her young patients’ parents, “Depending on your child’s age, there are easy and affordable ways to build lunches that pack a nutritional punch and avoid empty calories that can lead to weight gain.”

Get our dietitian-approved recommendations for lunches and snacks that are great to mix and match!