Healthy Habits for Children

Tips for Parents

Behaviors started as a child can last a lifetime. Once a child reaches adolescence, it can increasingly difficult to change unhealthy behaviors.1 That’s why teaching children at an early age how to live a healthy lifestyle is so important.

In order for children to reach optimal health, parents should encourage children to do the following:

1. Eat three meals a day (including breakfast). Eating regular meals has been associated with better dietary habits and maintaining healthy weight in children. Skipping breakfast may increase insulin resistance2 and diabetes risk,3 as well as the risk of heart disease.4 It also increases the probability of weight gain.5

2. Start meals off with smaller servings. Do not use adult-sized plates for younger children, as it encourages them to eat oversized portions. Let your child ask for more if they are still hungry. It is important for children to pay attention to feelings of hunger and satiety for themselves, so that they learn how to control portion size and avoid overeating.

3. Eat healthy snacks. Processed snack foods tend to be high in calories, but low in nutrition. They often contain refined grains, added sugars, and excessive levels of sodium. Choose nuts, fruits, or unsweetened yogurt instead.

4. Drink water and avoid sugary drinks. Drinking sugar sweetened beverages has been linked to obesity in children.6 Drinking clean water is always a healthy choice. Moderate amounts of dairy (up to 2 servings a day) is optional.

5. Get at least an hour of physical activity each day. It doesn’t need to be all at once. Several short bursts of physical activity throughout the day can be just as good as an hour-long stretch. Any activity that causes a noticeable increase in heart rate can help to improve health and prevent diseases later in life, so unstructured play at an appropriate place, such as on a playground or at a park, is a great way for children to get their daily hour of exercise.

6. Limit screen time. This includes use of computers, smart phones, and tablets, playing video games, and watching television. Too much screen time has been associated with higher risk of becoming overweight or obese.7-8 The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have no more than 2 hours per day of screen time. For children less than 2 years of age, exposure to screen media should be completely avoided.9 Keeping televisions and other electronic devices outside of children’s bedrooms, especially at night, may help to limit their screen time and improve their sleep.

7. Get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle, and getting enough sleep helps maintain a healthy weight.10 Keeping a regular bedtime can help children maintain good sleep habits.11

8. Maintain a healthy weight. There is a strong link between excess body weight and diabetes.12 It’s easier to prevent weight gain than to lose weight, so encourage children to eat a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of protein (such as fish, chicken, nuts, beans, and tofu). Limit refined grains, red and processed meats, and sugar in children’s diets.

Also, as a final note, remember that children model their parents’ behaviors. By eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, keeping a regular sleep schedule, and not smoking, parents can encourage children to model these healthy behaviors and enable them to enjoy a lifetime of benefits from living healthily.

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3 Mekary RA, Giovannucci E, Willett WC, van Dam RM, Hu FB. Eating patterns and type 2 diabetes risk in men: breakfast omission, eating frequency, and snacking. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;95(5):1182-1189.
4 Cahill LE, Chiuve SE, Mekary RA, et al. Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male US Health Professionals. Circulation. 2013;128:337-343.
5 Nurul-Fadhilah A, Teo PS, Huybrechts I, Foo LH. Infrequent breakfast consumption is associated with higher body adiposity and abdominal obesity in Malaysian school-aged adolescents. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(3):e59297.
6 Ruyter JC, Katan MB, et al. A trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children. N Engl J Med. 2012;367:1397-1406.
7 Andersen RE, Crespo CJ, Bartlett SJ, Cheskin LJ, Pratt M. Relationship of physical activity and television watching with body weight and level of fatness among children: results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. JAMA. 1998;279(12):938-942.
8 Sugimori H, Yoshida K, Izuno T, et al. Analysis of factors that influence body mass index from ages 3 to 6 years: A study based on the Toyama cohort study. Pediatr Int. 2004;46(3):302-310.
9 Media and Children. American Pediatrics Association Web site.
10 Patel SR, Hu FB. Short sleep duration and weight gain: a systematic review. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008;16(3):643-653.
11 Adopt Good Sleep Habits. Get Sleep: Harvard School of Medicine School Division of Sleep Medicine.
12 Ley SH, Schulze MB, Hivert MF, Meigs JB, Hu FB. “Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes.” Diabetes in America. In press.