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Setting a Healthy Example Can Keep Kids Off the Path to Diabetes

01/24/2014 09:01AM | 25848 views

By Raynald Samoa

Manage your stress. Make better food choices. Become less sedentary. Those are the three recommendations I made at the end of my last article to manage diabetes or even better, avoid getting it in the first place.

Easier said than done, I know. But if you think it’s difficult for us as adults to do one of these things, never mind all three, it’s almost impossible for our children, for reasons I will discuss. That’s why as parents, it’s our responsibility to see that our children are leading healthier lives in their developing years – especially if we want to help them avoid preventable health problems in the future, including chronic disease like adult-onset diabetes.

The challenge is, how can we take more responsibility for changing our kids’ activity levels and eating habits when the deck seems stacked against us?When food is valued for convenience and cost rather than freshness and nutrition. When electronic devices are the new playing fields and video games the new national pastime for a generation of children.

In order to be successful in getting kids to reprogram their food and activity choices, we have to start with the knowledge that children have not yet developed the ability to reason like adults. That is why thinking of them as little adults and trying to appeal to their sense of reason almost always fails. The part of brain that helps us reason – for example, assessing the long-term benefits or consequences of our immediate actions – develops slowly during childhood and so kids have a hard time making the connection between what they eat/how much they exercise and how these things will affect their health in adulthood.

Because they don’t have the capacity to assess long-term benefits, what will influence them are their parents, the adults in their lives who can guide them by making more deliberate, healthier choices for themselves. By nature of this exposure, kids will pick up on the changes you make and tend to make healthier choices too, decreasing their health risks and the looming threat of diabetes later in life.

This is why it’s so important to start leading by example by making our own healthier choices. If we’re seeing increased levels of obesity and health risks in our children, it’s because the adults have been setting a poor example for them. Case in point: because of work and other life stressors, how many of us make dinner on the fly instead of planning meals ahead of time? This is a sure-fire way to set up poor eating habits for yourself and your family, for two reasons in particular:

  1. When you’re making or grabbing food on the go, you’re going to choose the most convenient, least costly meals (often fast food) – which also tend to be the most unhealthy and least nutritious.
  2. If you wait until dinnertime to make choices about what you’re going to eat or feed your family, research shows you’re daily capacity to make good decisions has already been used up. If you spend your entire day making decisions and dealing with stress, by the end of the day you’re ability to make well-reasoned decisions has been depleted or severely diminished.

Studies also show that people who preplan their meals ahead of time eat healthier and eat less.

When we are more deliberate about meal planning in the morning or early in the day when we are well-rested and have more energy, we tend to make better choices. At the end of the day, the big decision about what to put on the table for dinner has already been made, and you’re not only eating healthier – but so are your kids.

As an added benefit, preplanning family menus helps you to manage stress.  Not only is the latter part of the day a difficult time for decision-making, it’s also a more stressful time. Children have to be shuttled to after-school activities or picked up, they need help with their homework, they might be fighting with each other or causing other distractions, and they’re hungry and want to be fed.

In stressful situations, we often make bad decisions, because we make the easiest and quickest choices – often without thinking. With food, we might automatically grab whatever is available whether it’s healthy or not. On the other hand, if you plan the family menu during a quieter part of the day when you’re not so stressed out, you will have the energy and focus to make better and healthier choices; secondarily, you will be managing your stress for the better by not adding to it at the end of the day.

The third piece of the health puzzle – becoming less sedentary – goes hand-in-hand with making better food choices and it also can be a great stress reliever. One thing we have learned is that people have a difficult time exercising on a regular basis if they rely on will power alone. They will exercise more with greater consistency when there is some kind of oversight and accountability. Scheduling purposeful exercise for yourself and your kids, setting goals and tracking your progress are ways to help you increase and sustain your activity levels. Telling family and friends – and sharing your exercise goals on social media sites like Facebook – can also keep you motivated.

For kids, you can even make a game of it. For example, set up a point system and reward them with points based on their daily exercise that they can redeem for rewards. Perhaps they earn more allowance, more TV time to watch a favorite show, or more electronic time for video games.

Better yet, make the reward consistent with less sedentary behaviors. For Latino children, being around other kids can be a reward in itself. Let kids earn points for walking the family dog or trying a new vegetable with their meal – or any healthy activity or food choice – that they can redeem for a sleepover with friends or a visit with a favorite cousin. In other words, leverage the culture – the value Hispanics place on time spent and social activities with family and friends.

If you tie healthy choices to familiar cultural activities and get extended family to participate, the more these choices will be accepted as part of normal life, and the more successful you will be in getting your children engaged in healthier habits. For example, rolling tamales is a popular family holiday event, so link participation in this activity with a behavior you want to reinforce, such as playing outside instead of sitting in front of an electronic device.

The importance that Hispanics place on family engagement, where everyone is connected and doing something together, is a cultural value that can be leveraged today to protect the health of our children as they grow into adulthood.

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