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Yes, we Can!: Healthy Eating and Exercise in Adolescence

Published:Monday | March 19, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Abigail Harrison & Dr Suzanne Soares-Wynter/Contributors

March 18-24 is being recognised as Global Teen Health Week, aimed at raising the profile of adolescent health. Below is an article from the Paediatrics Association of Jamaica.

In recent times, there has been a lot of talk about overweight and obesity in children, adolescents, and adults, and with good reason, as the prevalence of overweight/obesity in our young people and the general population has been on the rise.

Obesity is a big threat to our health as it carries an increased risk of many illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and some cancers, which may affect both adults and children. It is therefore important for families to set health goals to improve our eating habits, be more physically active, and manage our weight.

Our first goal should be to set a healthy eating pattern as this drives optimal development of mind and body. This improves our chances of achieving a healthy weight, enjoyment of food socially, and the development of an overall sense of improved well-being. Healthy eating behaviours start from as early as infancy and toddlerhood, with parents introducing healthy foods and minimising toddlers' exposure to unhealthy options. It is important to manage the 'what', 'where', and 'when' of meals being provided to your children. When healthy eating habits are set from early childhood, they facilitate a smoother transition through adolescence.

Eating habits developed during adolescence usually persist through adulthood with long-term health consequences, whether negative or positive. A balanced diet should be supplied each day, typically as three meals, and, if necessary, healthy snacks in-between meals. Meals should be balanced by including foods from all of the Caribbean food groups - staples, legumes, fruits, vegetables, fats and oils, and foods from animals. A variety of foods from each group should be offered, but in appropriate portions.

It is important to take a healthy approach to managing body weight. Attempts to manage weight using the latest diet fads or any method that results in drastic weight loss (greater than two pounds per week) is likely to provide temporary weight loss. More importantly, most of these diets result in greater weight regain and increased risk of damaging health in the longer term. It is more important to move towards an overall healthy lifestyle by improving our eating behaviours, becoming more physically active, and aiming for positive attitudes and a sense of well-being.




Here are a few recommendations for developing healthy eating habits:

- Have family meals. Start from as early as toddlerhood and continue through adolescence. If this is not already a practice in your home, you can start today. In addition to reducing the risk of becoming overweight, family meal time is also a wonderful opportunity to share the day's experiences, learn from each other, learn about each other, and build relationships.

- Avoid added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages. These include carbonated soda, sweetened fruit juices, and sport drinks. In addition, many other refined/packaged foods are high in sugars. Encourage your child to drink water when thirsty and have a fruit for snacking.

- Monitor for abnormal changes in eating patterns. Repeatedly skipping meals, avoiding entire food groups, hiding food, or not completing meals with normal portion sizes can indicate more serious concerns of disordered eating. Other unusual behaviours, such as preoccupation with caloric content of food, excessive exercise or self-induced vomiting, overeating, or excessive snacking, can also be a red flag for concern.

- Eating a balanced diet is the key to so many things in life, but it is equally important for both children and adults to remain physically active. Exercise contributes to both physical and psychological development through many health benefits. The World Health Organization recommends that children aged five to 17 years should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity throughout each day. Children should be encouraged to participate in either structured exercise or play at home or at school. Indeed, everyone would benefit from setting a habit like that. It helps to do exercise that we actually enjoy so that we will be motivated to continue.

Tip for teens: Get a friend to join you; it will be way more fun.

Tip for parents: Use this as an opportunity for good parent-child time together, strengthening the relationship with your adolescent as they grow into adults.

As adults, we are challenged to maintain our own health, and as parents and guardians, we should model healthy eating and exercise to ensure a positive influence on our children.

- Dr Abigail Harrison is a consultant paediatrician/adolescent medicine physician at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and president of the Paediatrics Association of Jamaica. Dr Suzanne Soares-Wynter is a clinical nutritionist at the Caribbean Institute for Health Research, UWI.