How Chicago Parents Are Helping Their Children Maintain a Healthy Weight

February was American Heart Month and March is National Nutrition Month, a time when all people are encouraged to focus on their cardiovascular health, nutrition and lifestyle habits. Heart disease is the most prevalent cause of death among adults in the United States, and research shows childhood health factors are associated with later cardiac health in adulthood. For instance, high blood pressure in childhood increases the risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke later in life. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that between 13% and 18% of children have consistently elevated blood pressure, and up to 5% of children and teens in the United States have been diagnosed with pediatric hypertension. Obesity is also one of the most influential factors contributing to high blood pressure. As of 2020, 20% of children aged 2–19 would be classified as having obesity. Parents can help reduce their children’s risk of developing heart disease by encouraging balanced meals, a positive relationship with healthy food, regular physical activity and taking advantage of community resources that promote these behaviors. 

In this month’s Voices of Child Health Report, we asked 1,060 Chicago parents from all 77 community areas in the city about how easy or difficult they find it to do various things to help their children maintain a healthy weight.

Report Highlights

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  • One in three parents say that it is hard to limit their children’s exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages.
  • The ease of finding healthy affordable food where families live differs by race, parent education and household income.
  • Only 58% of parents say that it is easy to find healthy ways for their child to cope with stress/trauma.
 

Strategies that were easiest and most difficult for promoting healthy child weight

In our sample, 20% of parents reported they had concerns about their child being overweight, 9% had concerns about their child being underweight and 71% had no concerns about their child’s weight.

Some of the easier strategies for promoting healthier weight in children, as reported by parents, included making sure their child eats healthy food at home (74% said this was very or somewhat easy), preparing healthy meals for the whole family (69% very/somewhat easy), and making sure their child gets enough physical activity (69% very/somewhat easy) (Figure 1).

Parents found it most challenging to limit a child’s exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods and beverages, with 42% saying this was very/somewhat easy (24% said not easy or hard and 33% said this was very/somewhat hard); and making sure that the streets and sidewalks in their neighborhood are safe for walking or biking, with only 52% of parents saying this was very/somewhat easy (21% neither easy or hard and 27% very/somewhat hard).

When youth experience increased stress or trauma, it puts them at higher cardiometabolic risk later in life, including high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. In our sample, 57% of parents said that it is easy to find healthy ways for a child to cope with stress/trauma, whereas 18% said that this was hard/very hard, a statistic that highlights the need for continued attention to the youth mental health crisis in the United States. Healthy weight factors did not differ based on community area. Figure 2 lists all the healthy weight promotion strategies that we asked parents about.

Healthy, affordable food access and availability

Finding healthy affordable food where families live differed by self-reported race and ethnicity, parent education and household income. We found that 79% of Asian/Other parents and 73% of White parents indicated that finding affordable food was doable, while only 62% of Black and 58% of Latinx and Hispanic parents felt the same way. Ease for this strategy also differed by parent education, with 76% of parents who graduated college agreeing that finding affordable food was easy, compared with only 60% of high school graduates and 57% of parents with some college or technical school. Regarding household income, parents with higher household income (400%+ federal poverty level [FPL]) reported an easier time finding affordable food compared with parents with low and middle household income (75% said this was easy vs. 60–61% easy).

Finding safe opportunities and programs for children to be physically active

Finding safe opportunities for their child to be physically active where they live differed by race and ethnicity, parent education, and household income. Among White parents, 77% indicated that they were able to find safe physical activity opportunities for their children, while 67% of Asian/ Other, 60% of Black and 57% of Latinx/Hispanic parents felt the same way. This finding may reflect a disparity in access to safe green spaces, playgrounds and other areas where children can be physically active. It may also reflect disparities in community infrastructure (e.g., street and sidewalk quality), which has been acknowledged by the City of Chicago.

Parents who were college graduates (75%) also had an easier time finding physical activity opportunities for their children, compared to only 59% of parents with a high school degree or below and 57% of parents with some college or technical school. Parents with higher household income (400%+ FPL) also reported having an easier time finding opportunities for their children to be physically active (77% reported it was easy) compared with parents with middle household income (59% said this was easy) and low income (57% said this was easy). Additionally, parent ease regarding enrolling their child in physical activity programs at the Chicago Park District, local YMCA or other community organizations differed by race and household income. Parents with higher household income had an easier time getting their child enrolled in these programs compared to those with middle and lower income (69% vs. 54–56%), and White parents reported greater ease in enrolling their child compared with parents of other races and ethnicities (71% White vs. 61% Black, 53% Latinx/ Hispanic, 51% Asian/other).

Tips for Parents

There are many ways parents can encourage their children to maintain healthy habits and weight, and to eat a balanced diet. Read below for some helpful tips.

1. Consistent Exercise

Encourage physical activity and exercise through play and/or sports both at home and at school. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

2. Providing Healthy Foods

Even at the earliest ages of infancy and toddlerhood, establishing healthy eating patterns shapes long-term eating habits as a child grows and develops. Young children do not consume as many calories in a day as compared to older children and adults, so attention to higher quality calories will be beneficial. Promoting healthy eating habits include giving children meals and snacks that are high in fruits and vegetables and low in added sugar and sodium. A healthy eating plan should also include a variety of foods that are high in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats (Figure 3). The NIH recommends trying to choose foods and beverages that are low in saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium—a mineral found in table salt and in many packaged or prepared foods.

3. Help children find positive ways to manage stress

Have open communication with children about stress, encouraging healthy behaviors such as getting enough sleep, and modeling good coping skills. Find more information about this from the AAP and AHA.

4. Blood pressure screenings

Make sure your child has yearly blood pressure screenings, starting at least by the age of 3. Make sure your child has yearly blood pressure screenings, starting at least by the age of 3, which is highly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

5. Create a Family Media Use Plan

This plan helps to start a family discussion on media use and the importance of developing healthy media habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics has developed an interactive website that can help families draft and revise their plans. Website: AAP Media Plan (healthychildren.org)

6. Use ads as an opportunity to develop critical thinking

Parents can use advertising as an opportunity to have an age-appropriate discussion with their children on how to identify an advertisement, think critically about the message of the ad, and compare how the advertiser might want us to respond with how we think we should respond.

7. Conduct a Walkability Assessment in their neighborhood

Several walkability assessments are freely available online (example from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration). Families can conduct an assessment in their neighborhood and report results to 311 and their local alderman or elected official to advocate for changes. For example, many municipalities can dispatch services for sidewalk repair, improved lighting, playground repair, and other changes to improve walkability and accessibility. For larger efforts, like bike paths or connecting sidewalks, families can get involved in local advocacy efforts to join forces with their neighbors. Active Transportation Alliance is an example of an advocacy group working across the state of Illinois.

More tips can be found on the American Heart Association website.