Back in 2007, Mount Pleasant dad Noah Moore had an “aha moment” when it came to his family's health and wellness. The 36-year-old realized the pizza delivery man knew the family by name, his son could name more fast food restaurants than U.S. presidents, and somehow since getting married and having a child, he himself had become so overweight he couldn't play football in the yard with his son without feeling out of breath.
Moore recognized that his own unhealthy habits with food and exercise were being passed down to his son, a problem that is all too common in our state. According to the S.C. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, more than 65 percent of South Carolina adults are overweight or obese, which in turn affects their children.
A recent study by MUSC's Boeing Center for Children's Wellness found that 43 percent of student participants in Charleston County School District were either overweight or obese. Of the teachers participating in the study, 70 percent were also found to be overweight or obese — a notable finding since children depend on parents and teachers to be role models.
Louis Yuhasz, founder of Louie's Kids, stands on the front lines in the fight against childhood obesity in Charleston. Yuhasz says parents must stop ignoring the problem.
“I think if more of America were to really pay attention, they would be shocked,” he said. “This will be in the history books. The obesity epidemic will be one of the nation's biggest shames, I believe: That we let this many children get this seriously sick and stood by and watched as it happened. If this were polio or cancer or kids smoking would we take it so lightly?”
Lucie Kramer, registered dietitian and nutritionist at MUSC, said the most important thing to understand about childhood obesity is that it's not an individual problem — it's a community problem, and it's a family problem.
The good news? Easy solutions start at home, with parents who set a healthy example, with fitness programs that stress fun, and with a fresh approach to family meals.
After Moore's personal epiphany about the state of his family's health, he took matters into his own hands. He started walking and slowly jogging, often with his son. He started eating fruits and vegetables instead of fast food. Now 42 years old, Moore has lost more than 100 pounds.
“I literally ran the wheels off a baby stroller,” Moore said. “I had to change my whole way of thinking as far as exercise and eating and living a healthy lifestyle.”
Once he had his new routine, Moore started involving his son even more, encouraging him to be active by inviting him on runs and doing activities such as races together as a family.
Today, Moore and his son, Peyton, now 8 years old, are regulars in Charleston's running community. Moore runs ultra marathons and coaches other beginners in Couch to 5K programs at Try-Sports and Peyton runs track in the Mount Pleasant Track Club.
“I think him seeing me as a role model was really important,” Moore said. “Like most kids, he emulates what he sees around him.
“I was at lunch with him one day at school, and all his friends knew that I had gone on a training run that week that was 24 miles. They all wanted to know about it. He talks about that kind of stuff with his friends because he thinks it's cool.”
Of course, you don't have to run ultra marathons to be a good example to your kids. Modeling active behavior for your children can include small things too, Kramer said. Take the family for a walk or bike ride after dinner each night. Make it part of the normal routine so children see exercise as a basic part of life.
“Modeling good behaviors is one of the biggest influences on children,” Kramer said. “What are the grown-ups around them doing? Even little things like not parking too close to where you're going so you have to walk a little farther, always taking the stairs — behaviors that they'll just think are normal.”
To get the kids off the couch, up and moving, think of ways to make physical activity fun, Yuhasz said. As a family, activities could include roller skating, going to the beach, bowling, strolling through a new park, anything that gets the whole family involved.
Charleston County Parks offers a bevy of family and parent-child activities, including archery, stand-up paddleboard, rock climbing and kayaking.
“Instead of putting a child on a treadmill or on a track and saying 'run,' find workouts to inspire kids to think about exercise in fun ways rather than as drudgery or work,” Yuhasz said.
Youth sports are another option, either through school or community programs. Charleston and Mount Pleasant both offer community youth teams in everything from swimming to lacrosse for children as young as 5 years old. Shelli Davis, recreational coordinator for fundamental sports in Mount Pleasant, said with basically year-round programming, there are plenty of opportunities for children to find the sport that's just right for them.
“Starting at a younger age lets kids try all the sports, not just one,” she said. “ It give them a chance to figure out what it is to be on a structured team, follow instructions from a coach and work with teammates.”
Being active on a sports team or in family activities offers more than just physical benefits. Amy Kassis, owner of Yoga Mama studio, said she sees children in her kids and family yoga classes experience a boost in confidence and self-esteem as they overcome seemingly daunting tasks.
“They're proposed with challenges that, to them, immediately seem impossible,” she said. “I'll present to them a pose and they're like, 'There's no way I can do that.' It may not happen in one class, it may happen at home when they try. I remind my kids when they don't want to try anymore: Accomplishment is a gift you can only give to yourself.”
Back to the table
The other major component of leading a healthy lifestyle is family mealtime. Kramer recommends eating together as a family for at least one meal a day. Sitting down at the table together not only allows children to see parents modeling good eating habits (parents need to eat their veggies, too!) it gives the family time to talk, something that's hard to do when eating in front of the TV or in the car.
Kramer said one of the major pitfalls to watch out for in your children's diet is sugary drinks.
“Children don't need to drink any calories unless they're from skim or low-fat milk,” she said. “We don't need all these products that companies want us to buy: soda, fruit juice — so many different things. It should just be water.”
Parents should instead focus on whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, Kramer said. Try to serve them in their unaltered state, meaning no added sugar for fruits or cheese for vegetables. Serve the vegetables at every meal, eat them yourself, and eventually the children will follow suit, she said.
Research shows that when kids are exposed to new food, it takes an average of seven times for them to accept it, Kramer said.
“It's easy for a parent to get frustrated and say, 'I tried carrots, but he doesn't like them. I have a picky eater.' Now that child has a label that he knows and he can use to say “No thank you, I only eat pizza and chicken nuggets. I'm a picky eater.' It's very important not to make that label, so the opportunity stays available for that child to grow into new foods.”
One way to get children interested in new foods is to involve them in the food shopping and preparation process. Kramer suggests taking children grocery shopping and letting them pick out a new vegetable.
“There's a real benefit to getting the kids involved, I think it makes food less scary to them,” said Liz Verna, lead culinary instructor at Charleston Cooks! “Especially once the kids get a little bit older and they start to know what different foods looks like and how to read recipes. It takes away the mystery behind cooking.”
Smaller children can stir, roll out dough, crush nuts or line up ingredients for Mom, Verna suggests. As they get older, children can measure and add ingredients, boil water and even start chopping vegetables.
“Making them feel like they are a part of what they're eating for dinner goes a long way in making sure that kids enjoy food,” she said.