Dr. Tom Warshawski knows the signs of future weight problems when he sees them. The chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation and head of pediatrics at Kelowna General Hospital isn’t worried about roly-poly babies or rotund toddlers. Instead, he gets concerned when he sees preschoolers and school-age kids carrying extra pounds.

The underlying cause of being overweight — unhealthy eating habits and too little physical activity — can set a child up for weight issues and serious health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain and depression later in life, says Toronto paediatrician, Dr. Dan Flanders.

And the stats are worrisome: According to Statistics Canada, the incidence of obesity in Canadian kids almost tripled between 1978 and 2004. That has led to a rethink about when to address the issue.

“We’re now more focused on getting behaviours right at a younger age,” says Washawski.

Cut the sugar and the TV

Warshawski says sugary foods and drinks are some of the worst culprits for childhood obesity. He says pop and juices can contain up to 12 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Add to that foods high in sugar — such as certain breakfast bars, granola bars, cookies or pastries — and the sugar consumption grows.

Too much TV viewing can compound the problem. “Eighty per cent of children in grades six to 10 log more than two hours of screen time a day,” says Warshawski.

That screen time makes children brand-aware, says Flanders, and more likely to demand specific products at the grocery store. “The food industry's highly sophisticated marketing machine has inundated both adults and kids with targeted, subliminal messaging adversely influencing our tastes, preferences, actions, habits and eating behaviours,” he says.

Warshawski says that parents, though concerned about their kids’ eating habits, don’t always have enough energy to manage them. “As a parent, you’re tired – you’re not always at the top of your game,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to make bad choices when you’re going down the grocery aisle.”

But parents are critical in instilling healthy behaviours, the Childhood Obesity Foundation and other experts agree. You can control what your child eats — and help prevent health issues down the road:

1. Take your child to a paediatrician or family doctor. If you suspect a weight issue, have your doctor assess your child’s body mass index (BMI). If your child has a high BMI, talk about strategies to reduce it.

2. Record what your child eats each day. Then figure out the calories/sugar/fat content. Replace prepared and refined foods with homemade or whole foods as much as possible, says Warshawski. Include more servings of vegetables and fruit; aim for four to six servings a day, as recommended by Canada’s Food Guide.

3. Improve sleep quality. Don’t put a TV in your child’s bedroom, says Warshawski, as it can keep him or her up at night. Less sleep causes a build-up of a hormone called ghrelin that makes kids hungrier — and more likely to turn to high-fat or sugary foods for energy.

4. Eat together. While it may not always be possible, eating together as a family allows you to watch what and how much your child eats. Having a secure routine and regular family interaction may also help reduce his or her stress levels. Kids who are more relaxed make eating — particularly overeating — less of a focus.

5. Aim to have your child exercise for an hour or more per day, but start small, says Flanders. While taking up a sport or dance class is optimal, fitness videos you pop into your TV are better than nothing, says Warshawki.

Finally, don’t panic if your child is just a little pudgy for his or her age and is generally eating well and getting enough physical activity. Chances are, if they’re leading healthy lives, they will grow into their bodies.

Four ways to help kids maintain a healthy weight

  1. Give them water instead of juice when they’re thirsty.
  2. Don’t force them to clean their plates.
  3. Serve them a healthy, low-sugar breakfast.
  4. Encourage regular exercise.