The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the obesity epidemic for both adults and children. According to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of childhood obesity is increasing more quickly now than it was prior to the pandemic. Additionally, new research suggests that two-thirds of children’s daily caloric intake now comes from highly processed foods such as pizza and hamburgers and snacks such as cookies and chips.
Unfortunately, there are few resources available to support families in making healthy changes. As a health and exercise professional, however, you are ideally positioned to help families and children improve their lifestyle habits and, on a broader scale, potentially slow the childhood obesity epidemic.
Ultimately, everyone is responsible for their habits and choices, but having the support of a coach when adopting new habits as a family can create lifelong change and have a positive influence on a child’s health for life. Helping clients improve their health habits in a supportive and health-promoting way can be especially impactful in modeling healthy habits for kids.
Structure and Planning are Essential to Success for Family Change
Structure is key to building long-lasting habits for families, no matter what their specific goals might be. Creating an agreed-upon plan as a family means everyone knows what to expect. This may include general guidelines about screen time or phone use (i.e., no screens at the dinner table), or it could be more specific such as participating in a sport or activity or walking the dog a few days per week.
Planning together can help to build healthy habits into the weekly schedule. Discussing the plan and taking suggestions from all family members is key in getting everyone on board and helping everyone to know what to expect.
Of course, plans will vary by age. If your clients' children are babies through early elementary age, it will be easier to change the home environment and build in healthy habits as opposed to attempting to change less-healthy habits in teens. As kids get older, their friends have more influence over their choices, and they may be attached to certain foods or drinks. Additionally, older kids have more freedom with trading or buying food at school or going out to eat.
Remind your clients that, regardless of their children’s ages or how entrenched their less-healthy habits might seem, improving the home environment or working toward healthier habits is always worth the effort. Even if the kids are hesitant to change, seeing a parent make a positive, healthy change can influence habits later in life.
Including the whole family in making the family plan is key to influencing change. Here are a few ways your clients can gain family support or take suggestions from family members:
- Give every family member a turn at suggesting meal ideas or cooking a meal. Everyone should also get a turn choosing a favorite treat on dessert night.
- Allow kids to choose the fruit and/or vegetables that are offered.
- Encourage kids to choose the sports and activities in which they want to participate.
- Avoid discussing weight, forcing kids to eat certain foods, or using bribery or coercion to eat or be active.
- Keep fresh fruits and vegetables readily available and accessible. For example, place bananas and apples on the counter, and stock the refrigerator with rinsed and ready-to-eat fresh berries, carrots and sugar snap peas.
5 Strategies for Coaching Families to Better Health and Nutrition Habits
Eating more nutritiously and adopting healthier habits should never be viewed as an all-or-nothing proposition. And it can take time, especially if a family’s lifestyle habits are deeply engrained. Additionally, families may face a wide range of challenges, from shared custody schedules to multiple food sensitivities. That’s why it’s so important to remind your clients to keep their eyes on incremental progress and worry less about eating “perfectly” or making healthy choices all the time. Share the following five strategies with your clients, which can help them move toward adopting better health and nutrition habits for themselves and their families.
1. Eat Meals Together Whenever Possible
Eating meals together (and eating the same meal) can play a huge role in the foods kids are exposed to and their likelihood of consuming healthy meals. Rather than having the adults (or your client) eat a different meal than the rest of the family, encourage them to have their kids eat the same meal. For example, let’s say your client eats chicken, sweet potatoes and vegetables for dinner while the kids eat macaroni and cheese. Rather than taking away the mac and cheese, add the chicken and vegetables to the kids’ plate. They may object initially, but over time, they will become used to being offered the same meal and will be more likely to try new foods.
Regardless of the foods being offered, eating together is a key habit that can influence the long-term mental and physical health of children. "Make it the norm that everyone eats the same meal (no separate meals or catering to picky preferences) and listens to their body to decide how much to eat,” urges Dr. Natalie Muth, MD, RD, FAAP, a pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Obesity. “Spend your time together at meals enjoying each other’s company.” She also urges parents (and kids) to avoid making comments about what others may or may not be eating. “Keep mealtimes enjoyable by making a habit of not remarking on what everyone is or is not eating,” she says, “and don’t pressure anyone to ‘clean their plate’ or ‘eat their vegetables.’”
Before worrying about changing the foods other family members eat, sit together at mealtime whenever possible. If the whole family has busy schedules or it doesn’t feel realistic to begin offering the same meal to everyone, start small. Begin with one meal a week and work up from there. If dinners don’t work, try a weekend brunch when everyone is more likely to be home.
2. Offer a Fruit and Vegetable at Every Meal
Offering a fruit and vegetable at every meal is a great way to introduce healthier foods. Even a few slices of apple or a couple of baby carrots can begin to increase kids’ exposure to, and likelihood to taste and enjoy, these foods. Frozen fruits and vegetables are also an excellent, cost-effective option without the worry of food waste.
Developing a pleasurable taste for fruits and vegetables can be a lengthy process for some kids, so offering early and often can make the process go more quickly. Parents can offer fruits and vegetables in different forms to increase exposure to the taste, while varying the texture. For example, apples can be offered whole or sliced fresh, as applesauce, or as steamed or sauteed with cinnamon. Vegetables can be served raw with hummus, steamed and served plain or with sauce, as part of a stir fry, roasted with parmesan until crispy, or cooked in soups or stews. Many kids have texture preferences and offering foods that mirror the texture they already enjoy may increase the likelihood that they will try the food being offered.
Increase Coaching Value by Offering Family Sessions
As a health and exercise professional, consider providing extra value by offering your clients a family session to discuss their health goals and offer support in a neutral way, depending on the ages and stages of the kids. For example, while babies or toddlers won't be involved in a conversation, you can still offer resources for healthful eating for these ages. Preschoolers or elementary-aged kids may be interested in a short circuit workout or stretch routine that could be done as a family. Tweens or teens may be willing to participate in family coaching or engage in conversations about their own interests or goals, or perhaps a longer workout or learning about proper form. Utilize motivational interviewing to discuss goals, barriers to success, and what changes the kids or teens may be open to making.
Keep these sessions conversational and encourage the family to discuss how they could support one another, set a family goal or garner support for their individual health goals. Keep the focus on building healthy habits versus aiming for weight loss or restricting foods.
It may also be helpful to have a “hands-on” portion of the family session that includes a body-weight workout for the whole family, a demonstration of proper form for common exercises, modelling meal planning or food preparation methods, or putting together a veggie or fruit tray to demonstrate a healthy afterschool snack.
A family session could be especially beneficial for clients whose teenagers prefer to discuss their health with a neutral third party. A few topics that have the biggest impact on kids and teens are screen time/social media use, sugary drink intake and sleep habits.
Here are some questions you can use to spark conversation during this type of session:
- What goals do you have for yourself? (These may or may not be health related.)
- Do you think it’s important to worry about your health habits now?
- Are you currently doing anything for your health (including sleep, stress management, exercise or nutrition)?
- What activities do you most enjoy for fun?
- Are there any types of sports/fitness/exercise you’ve been wanting to try? Are you open to trying a new workout today?
- Are you open to eating more fruits or vegetables? What would you like to try?
- What would make healthy choices easier?
- How can family members support each other in their own goals?
- Is there one goal the family is open to setting together?
If you are not interested in offering a family session, having a network of professionals, such as pediatricians, dietitians or other health coaches, who specialize in child and teen health can be a useful way to support your clients and their families.
Encourage your clients to increase their kids’ exposure to new foods by looking at the offerings at farmer’s markets together, trying new recipes or cooking together. Allowing young kids to lick or even just touch new foods can increase their exposure and likelihood to trying unfamiliar foods.
3. Don’t Try to Control Everything a Child Eats
It’s important to recognize that restricting, controlling or removing favorite foods will inevitably backfire. While removing all “junk” from the home or restricting access to candy or fast food may be well-intended, in most cases this approach will spur an increased obsession with food and may lead to sneaking food and binging. Rather than restricting access to favorite foods, discuss ways to have healthy options in the home. Also, try to offer healthy, balanced meals most of the time, and include desserts or other family favorites a couple times per week.
Being able to read a food label is an important skill when better nutrition is the goal. ACE Certified Professionals can access a simple guide to reading a nutrition label at the link at the top of this page, which they can share with their clients. Teaching family members how to differentiate between healthy and less-nutritous options can increase their autonomy and empower them to make healthier choices for themselves.
Allowing kids to learn how to tune in to their own hunger and fullness cues and helping them to trust their own bodies can help kids grow up with a healthy relationship with food. If the family is opposed to adopting new health habits, rather than throwing away their favorite food or drinks in an effort to control the home environment, increase their access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthful snacks. Encourage your clients to share their new favorite foods from a place of excitement and genuine care rather than trying to force, shame or manipulate their family members into making healthier choices.
4. Limit Sugary Drinks
Although clients should avoid banishing all less-than-healthy foods, sugary drinks may be the exception to the rule, as they can wreak havoc on a person’s caloric intake. This is particularly true for children. Encouraging clients to remove sugary drinks from the household, including any type of juice, sports drink or soda, can benefit the whole family.
“Consuming sugary drinks poses a real health risk to kids—and adults,” according to The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s State of Childhood Obesity report. “It increases children’s risk of excess weight gain and tooth decay and preventable diseases such as obesity. For adults, consuming sugary drinks also increases risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”
Reducing sugary drinks may take time and require switching to diet or low-sugar options in the interim, but ultimately it is a beneficial transition. Teens and tweens often gravitate toward sweetened coffee and tea drinks, and sodas and juices may be available at school. While parents can only control the home food environment, discussing a plan for sugary drinks (like having a sugary beverage twice a week or when you go out to eat), can help teens make educated health choices, while still enjoying their favorite beverages on occasion.
5. Prioritize Being Active Together
Taking walks together is, arguably, the easiest way for a family to introduce and maintain a consistent physical-activity habit. Remind your clients that taking a hike together can increase family bonding, while also providing opportunities for fresh air and much-needed movement. Urge your clients to include all members of the family in choosing a location or activity. For example, they might choose a park, zoo, trail or bike path to explore, try a new summer or winter sport, or sign up for a charity 5K that they can train for and complete as a family.
Having equipment on hand such as a frisbee, basketball, tennis rackets, bikes or scooters can engage kids who may not want to participate in a family walk. Children may also benefit from lessons or sports teams to make physical activity part of their life and schedule. Rec centers, schools, gyms, city leagues and YMCAs are just a few of the locations and organizations that offer a wide range of opportunities to be active, including swim lessons, baseball clinics, dance and gymnastic classes, skateboarding, martial arts training and much more.
For kids or teens who prefer to exercise alone or at home, there is no shortage of online workouts available, many of which require little or no equipment. Other solo activities such as hiking and biking also offer the added benefits of exercising outdoors.
As is the case with adults, it can take time for kids to identify the activities they enjoy participating in on a regular basis. Having the opportunity to develop skills and try new activities from a young age can help kids stay active through childhood and adolescence, while building key motor skills and promoting emotional health and well-being. Again, desire to participate may vary depending on age. Encourage your clients to share their own journey with exercise or fitness with their kids rather than try to nag or shame them into exercising.
Urge Clients to Model a Healthy Relationship With Food and Exercise
If your clients find that changing the home environment or family habits feels like a monumental challenge, remind them that one of the most beneficial things they can do to promote health in their children is to model a healthy relationship with food and exercise. It’s particularly important to avoid talking about earning or burning calories with exercise and being hyper-focused on weight loss. Instead, urge them to talk with their family about how they feel after making healthy changes. They can also remind their family about the numerous benefits of exercise other than weight loss, such as healthier blood pressure or better sleep.
As a health and exercise professional, you can play a key role in helping your clients develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise by focusing on overall health and well-being rather than solely on weight loss. By doing so, you can help your clients and their families make healthy changes for life.