Fight Fat with Free-Range?

Hey Readers — Take a look at this column by Glenn Cook in The Las Vegas Review Journal, “The Obesity Cure: Free Range Kids.”

I know we are not all positive that there IS an obesity epidemic or, if there is, what its root causes are, but I think we can all agree that most kids today are less active than their parents were, for reasons ranging from Club Penguin to Nancy Grace. And even if they’re in organized sports, that’s still a different kettle of fish than coming home and riding a bike around the neighborhood till suppertime.

Yesterday my 12-year-old was out of the house all day, which seemed great. He was wandering with a group of friends, maybe six or seven of them, and I spotted them loping by a few times. It was like seeing gazelles in the wild. Loved it! But when he finally came home he started telling me about this great TV show he’d just seen for the first time.

I know, I know — a little TV is not the end of the world. And what’s the alternative — me micromanaging his day? “You VILL have outdoor fun!”  I’m just bummed that all of us — kids and adults — are up against the twin lures of air conditioning and streaming video. Those are hard for anyone to resist on a hot summer’s day.

All sorts of modern day conveniences and conventions make it hard to get our kids rollicking and frolicking as much as we’d like — or hard for me,  anyway. But when media start recognizing Free Range as a healthy way to raise kids,  that’s just good news.  Let’s hope what happens in Vegas doesn’t just stay in Vegas.– Lenore

'Sno joke! Get 'em outside!

37 Responses

  1. Being active doesn’t make you skinny. It just makes you hungry. It is no coincidence that the freest-range kid in my neighborhood is also the chunkiest (and this after several years of free range). Kids need to lay off the carbs (all the carbs, including “whole grain”) the same way adults do. When they are hungry, they need protein and fats, the building blocks for strong bones and healthy brains.

    If they are outside playing all day, come in hungry and grab a bag of Doritos – guess what?

  2. Most of us, whatever our ages, learn best when moving our bodies and interacting directly with the other people. Added fitness is really just a bonus in my opinion.

    @Lucy . . . I suspect it has more to do with processed/manufactured food in general . . .

  3. 4 kids, 5 acres, 6 (plus) bikes. Zero TV, air conditioners, organized sports. Do we fall under the free-range umbrella? Yes?

  4. Oh, and Lucy, we eat tons of grains, not much processed foods (homemade ice creams, brownies, cakes don’t count as processed, right?), oodles of garden veggies, and my kids are lean mean movin’ machines.

  5. Recent studies suggest that it’s not a lack of exercise that’s causing the obesity epidemic, it’s what we’re eating:

    http://scienceblog.com/36089/inactivity-no-contributor-to-childhood-obesity-epidemic/

    The actual cause is more likely to do with the amount of sugar/HFCS found in so many products we eat. For example, in a Canadian study 53% of food specifically marketed toward children and toddlers contained more than 20% sugar:

    http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Science-Nutrition/Study-highlights-excessive-sugar-content-in-food-for-toddlers

    Plus, the effects of Sugar on the body are…bad. Very bad. Think “all of the bad things we associate with alcohol except for the buzz” bad:

    Certainly exercise is necessary. It just seems that increasing exercise/activity won’t impact obesity, as the problem seems to lie elsewhere.

  6. My dad is visiting today – and weight is always a topic of conversation. Of how I played varsity sports – rode bikes all day – was in the Coast Guard for 8 years. During that time I ate anything I wanted. Which was Doritos. Mountain Dew. Peanut Butter Cups and Mac and Cheese. Once I got a desk job – and a Thyroid that quit working – the pounds came on. Now, I’m healthy a size 16 which is good for me, but big for my dad’s desires – but I’ve learned. The Hard Way. Don’t count on the metabolism of kids to keep them tiny. Allowing them to have junk – giving them freedom of food – is not helping them. We stock our house with healthy whole food choices. They have chips – with a meal. They have Ice Cream – as an afternoon snack while still exercising. So I’m not the food with holder – But we talk about calories and nutrition in – to give your body fuel – For more Free Range Fun.🙂 (and now that I’m close to 40 – I just roll my eyes at my dad, and say I like my active healthy body!)

  7. Sigh…here we go again….
    Everyone is different -different people respond to different foods in different ways.

    I’ve seen them all -from primal blueprint (light to moderate exercise, zero carb) to hard core marathon runners and spin instructors that carbo load -and I’ve seen skinny ones and “fat” ones in each category.

    And it isn’t fair. My two nieces are the thick and thin of it and they eat about the same of everything. -they are only 1 year apart -they both swim, dance, run around…One of them will spend her life dieting and one of them will be not cross 100lbs until she is in college.

    I personally think outside activity, working out and cardio is good for your heart -but losing weight always happens in the kitchen -and everyone has to find what works for them mentally and physically.

    I’m a spin instructor that needs carbs -so I adopted a south beach lifestyle back in 2005 and it has worked for me -even when I had my twins at home and wasn’t getting too much exercise.

    Part of my free-range philosophy is making sure my kids know what foods do (carbs=energy, protien =muscle and keeps you full, etc), and what foods are made of (protein, fat etc) and knowing what makes up a good snack and what a balanced meal is. So that when they are on their own, they have the information to figure out what works for them.

  8. If you make your house a known snack stop and make the snacks healthy but still appealing, that could balance things out a bit. Kids will share TV shows with each other but if they’re wandering by periodically throughout the day, I wouldn’t be concerned they’re vegging out too much.

    Enemy #1 in my book? The ice cream truck… It usually comes through my neighborhood just before dinner time, even!

  9. Lenore, I must say I LOVE your philosphy about raising kids and try to raise my 2 daughters as free range as i can. They watch very little TV and often get bored with it shortly after starting.
    But I have to laugh at you when you chide your son for watching TV with his friends while you are on the computer blogging away and we are all here reading it! I bet he is still more active with his friends in between bouts of TV than most of us who are reading your blog!
    CHEERS!

  10. @Lucy: I’d say don’t feed the trolls, but I then realized that perhaps you’re seriously confused. I mean, I don’t know when the last time is that you’ve watched professional cyclists and when the last time you’ve seen a fat one is. Nor do I know when the last time while watching body builders you’ve not been able to see their abs. Nor when you watched the Olympics and saw a fat gymnast, fat swimmer, fat runner, fat anyone is.

    Yes – activity makes you hungry for the simple fact that food is fuel for a human being. The more active you are, the more you need to eat in order to fuel the activity. It’s when you STOP being active and CONTINUE to eat as much as you did when you were active that you get fat… case in point… just about any retired football player who doesn’t understand the logic.

    When a child is outside playing their butts off, they’ll eat more and consequently burn it right off since they are being active.

    Your logic… and those who somehow have missed the scientific and in-your-face proof on how activity means thin even though you’re eating more… is so backward that I can’t even think up an appropriate metaphor to compensate and compare.

    Open your eyes and just look around. Food = Fuel. If you’re burning fuel you’re not getting fat. If you’re consuming fuel and NOT burning it (i.e. sitting on your rump eating a full package of Oreos while you watch television) you get fat.

    Simple as ABC.

  11. @Nicola — In fairness to Lucy, I think what she was saying is that the hunger created by activity is destructive *if you eat the wrong stuff in response.* You’re right, you don’t see fat competitive athletes. But part of the reason for that is that you don’t get to be a famous runner, cyclist, whatever unless you know how to satisfy your desire for calories *properly.*

    So if a kid plays outside all day and then eats lots of junk food, it probably doesn’t make him thin and fit. But I agree with your main point — it’s not the activity that makes him fat because it makes him hungry, it’s what he’s eating.

  12. Lucy, I think you have a point. I’ll say right out that I’m fat and my kids are fat. I’m not very active, but my kids are VERY active, sometimes spending hours in the pool or riding bikes around the neighborhood. I even have my daughter in a summer school fitness program. And I’ve heard the low-carb advice and I think there is some good science involved (I’ve read Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes). But I can’t figure out how to keep my kids away from carbs. That’s practically all they like! I can’t just give them a big plate of meat for dinner. And what snacks, then? Slim Jims? That doesn’t seem very healthy. Serously, other than trying to limit the obvious junk food and sweets, I’m not sure what to do.

  13. P.S. Lucy – you’re not really Amy Alkon, are you?

  14. Karen — I’m far from an expert on this, and don’t have to deal with this issue myself — my husband and I both seem to have “thin genes” (although middle age seems to be hitting us like everyone else.)

    Anyhow, as I understand it, more complex carbs are better than simpler ones. So if you can get (or force! as in, don’t offer worse alternatives) your kids to eat more whole grain bread, more whole wheat pasta, and less light-colored stuff, it’s better. Also, fruits, even though they contain sugar, are better than purely carb stuff like bread because there is more bulk to them — the sugars are absorbed more slowly and are better regulated. And veggies are always good. I know most kids don’t get excited over carrot sticks, and you can’t force feed them stuff they hate, but you can at least insist that there will be a different mix of stuff in the house, if what they’re eating now is too much simple carby stuff.

  15. I have a daughter who, if I was really free-range with her, would be happy to sit and look at books the whole time her sister plays outside. She’s been this way since before her first birthday. Oh, how I had to encourage her just to walk up and down the block, at first. I have her in a bunch of “activities” because she needs to move. My hope is that she will develop active habits, pick up fun ideas, and come to the point where exercise is not an “effort” for her. And that these will be accomplished before she is old enough to really be set “free.”

    I think my plan is working, at least somewhat. She still doesn’t aspire to the Olympics, but she’s definitely lighter on her feet and says she’d like to play team soccer when she’s older.

    In her case, merely giving her more freedom than the average modern kid probably wouldn’t cut it. My sister was also very free-range & active and was usually overweight. I think they are in a small minority, but there are definitely some kids who will not be “skinny” just because they are allowed to ride their bikes around town.

    Food choices are another thing – a free-range child probably has more access to the “bad stuff.” When I was a young teen, I had paper routes and babysitting jobs to earn money. Every day, I walked about a mile to & from school, a few miles on my paper routes, and did lots of other walking / hanging out at the playground. But every chance I got, I bought the most disgusting junk food. Even though I had been a skinny kid, I started getting “broad across the beam” as my dad once put it. I agree with those who say we shouldn’t keep a house full of junk food, but free-range kids are going to eat junk food either way. Even armed with a basic knowledge of nutrition, they may have a distorted idea of what “use sparingly” means. I think that nowadays, young people can benefit from internet tools and such to be aware of what their ideal weight is, and whether they need to be a bit more careful before things get out of hand. Of course the internet is also full of stuff like anorexia/bulemia clubs and photoshopped models, so free-range or not, some parental guidance is in order. If anyone knows how to navigate the minefield of teen girl fitness, I’m all ears.

  16. @pentamom: I will give you that – but no matter what you eat, it’s an issue of calories in, calories out. Your body does not differentiate between 140 calories from three oreos, or 140 calories from a bowl full of fruit. (We aren’t talking quality since fruit is going to be much more beneficial, but just strictly numbers.)

    I’ll grant this as well – Oreos are not as filling as fruit and, consequently, a child coming in hungry from being active is more likely to overeat on junk food vs. eating the healthy things and is likely to grow larger as a result.

    Here’s the solution I see for many families that have this problem. Don’t buy the junk food. If it’s not in your house, your children cannot come home and eat it. Yes, it’s a major change for some, and yes, it takes some getting used to – but if it isn’t there, they can’t eat it. It’s simple logic – but does take some will power on the part of the adults.

  17. @SKL: I think your only avenue for the true “free-ranger” who is finally sprouting wings and going out to find their junk food is just education, as you mentioned. Teach your kiddos that if they overeat, they will grow larger and – one thing I tell my kids at 8 and 9 – it’s their body. They don’t hurt me when they overeat on junk food, they hurt themselves. We don’t buy the stuff (most of the time), they don’t eat it here – but they do get some from neighbors and friends that they visit. Difference is that they understand calories and amazingly enough, end up getting sick when they eat too much junk since they aren’t used to it. You are absolutely spot on though… education is key. Plus helping them say no to friends that may eat garbage, or at least helping them understand that they can join in eating a little bit, but then put it down. (I hope that made sense… I’m so tired. LOL)

  18. This is also where the crap served in school lunches really sucks. How to tell our kids that the food the government has chosen for them to eat daily – fries, tater tots, pizza, etc. – should be avoided when they are out with their friends?

  19. Like anything “bad,” it’s all about moderation.

    My kids typically have an apple or pear for a snack. But occasionally they get to eat those evil cheese & cracker snack packs. I cook healthy meals at home, but two, maybe three times a month, we hit a fast food place on the way home. Barring medical issues (thyroid problems, diabetes, etc), there’s nothing wrong with letting an active kid (or adult!) indulge every once in a while.

    Same with TV and computer and video games. My kids like to watch iCarly and Wow Wow Wubbzy, but they’re not inside all day long, planted in front of the TV. But when it’s getting late, and time for them to come inside and settle down before bath & bedtime, it doesn’t kill them to watch a little TV, nor does morbidly obese kids does it make.

    Last, you need to be cognizant of how your children’s bodies respond to both exercise and food. My oldest daughter takes after her father (he is, and has always been, a large man). When she asks for seconds at dinner, I tell her to wait a few minutes to let her food settle, and see how she feels then. Most of the time, she decides she’s full and doesn’t want any more.

    You don’t have to obsessively worry about it. You’ll just go bald. Just be aware, and assimilate it into your daily routine. That’s my advice.🙂

  20. SKL- I was one of those kids that would sit and read all day if given the opportunity. I was put in sports but never liked them, and didn’t develop any long term habits from it.

    What did work was my parents refusing to drive me anywhere, and a very “FRK” attitude towards where I went on my bike. I would bike 8+ miles a day in 6th grade (literally!) to go see friends. Daily biking was common until I got a car, which was when I had to start cutting out junk food because I started to get fatter.

    People like me, which is most of the population I bet, only like activity that has an end goal. We don’t walk just to walk or jog because its healthy, and we don’t like sports in general. We DO walk to get to a store or bike to see a friend, and thigs like dancing can be fun because they are heavily social and all about having a good time (NOT ballet!).

    In short, activity for its own sake is hellish and dull, but to get what we want, no problem, we will do it!Bviously,we don’t thrive as adults in suburbs where the car is king,but can stay active forever in a mixed use area or big walkable city.(Not as many overweight NYC residents compared to Houston…..)

    If your daughter fits in this category, she needs to learn about the role foods play in getting fat even more than your active kid. Fast food is the biggest fat-maker for teens with cars, alcohol for college kids. Also, make sure she is aware that her activity level is critical to her health, and that she may need to be concious of her living situation more than someone willing to run on a treadmill every day after driving from the office.

    I figured this out late, it would have helped me make better, healthier, choices had I known much sooner!!!

    Lucy- It IS true that there are active kids that are just big. It is not as common, but you’re right, I’ve seen it. Poor food choices and an excess of calories can undo the benefit of most normal activities, but sometimes this isn’t even the case.
    *

    Being overweight is one of the last things we allow people to be prejudice/hateful towards. Its often better to be a druggie than a fat person socially! Our obsession with being ultra thin is not healthy, and its important we don’t send the wrong messages to our kids about overtweight.We link thin to wealth/success, and fat to poor/lazy,which is a big part of our bias.When only wealthy people could be fat, that was what was idealized! Its often subconcious, but its there.

    Funny thing is that recent studies are showing that it is NOT unhealthy, but protective, to be a little bit heavy! (When I am back on my PC I will get the link for you all) Those who are a little overweight, but not morbidly obese, live longer than average weight people. Average weight people live longer than the very slim!!! And they don’t have worse health overall either.Weird, but true.

  21. That’s probably because below-average people include the chronically ill, for example CF patients. Extremes aren’t good in any direction.

  22. Right Nicola, that’s the point — calories from lower-quality food sources push out better ones, and make you want to keep eating to get the nutrition you need. So I don’t think we’re in disagreement at all.

    And I think getting them to eat well when they’re not under your eye is as much a matter of habit as anything. Yes, education is also important, but if they’re used to eating properly, and just learn to think of that as normal, sure they’ll splurge on junk now and then because it’s fun, but it won’t seem right to them to eat that way, because that won’t be “eating” to them.

  23. The exercise and good nutrition/moderation go hand-in-hand. Many who struggle with weight find that staying active helps to keep them motivated to stick with a healthy eating plan and thus lose weight. In my own experience with weight loss, it was during sedentary periods that I was most likely to overindulge in junk food. I tend to think of it this way: every hour that I am being active and getting excercise is an hour not spent eating junk food.

    I think the goal here is HEALTHY kids when we try to get them active, not SKINNY kids.

  24. Half of the heavy people say they are fat because their parents told them they were fat. The other half say they are fat because their parents didn’t talk to them about it. (I exaggerate, but you know what I mean.)

    I have two sisters. To one, you could give any amount of helpful information and she would take it positively. To the other, just making a remote reference to fitness (even someone else’s) could make her feel suicidal. Parenting – it’s a scary world. (Oops, that statement doesn’t belong on FRK, does it?)

  25. Lucy was right,a study in this article shows that active kids ate 2x as much:

    http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/diet_and_fitness/article6878496.ece

  26. Nothing makes me more uptight than seeing my kids vegging in front of the tube, especially on a sunny day. I get a little frantic inside actually, and then I have to stop and ask myself…am I helicoptering as I bemoan there down time. Trying hard to strike a balance. Chilling now with the Rooster (2 year old Bohdan) and a bowl of blueberries, watching the Backyardigans perform the rules of Simon Says as they dance around in fruit costumes. If only I we could harness our kids visual curiosity…

  27. The evidence is mounting that calorie deficit has little to do with weight loss in the average person. But don’t take my word for it (I’m not even Amy Alkon😉 ). There is plenty of science to back this up. Nicola, despite your instincts, the science just doesn’t agree.

    In addition to the link I posted above, and Staceyjw’s link, here are some more:

    http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/metabolism/more-on-the-thermodynamics-of-weight-loss/

    http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/metabolism/metabolic-efficiency/

    http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/the-human-condition/2010/03/23/exercise-and-weight-loss-abandon-all-hope.html

    http://nymag.com/news/sports/38001/

    Calorie deficit will bring weight loss – but you have to eat next to nothing and exercise pretty much constantly, conditions none of us want to submit our children too. We’re all average people.

    KarenW – I know it’s hard to get kids to stop eating carbs. I’ve got a carb addict of my own. She takes after me, genetically skinny, but that doesn’t stop the long term metabolic disorders the carbohydrates induce from getting a foothold (high blood pressure, low HDL, diabetes etc. affect skinny people too). We’re trying to work our way down this list – http://www.paleonu.com/get-started/, by first greatly reducing wheat, vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup intake, then move on to reducing sugar and other grains. Frankly I don’t expect to get much further than that, especially with kids.

  28. I love when my kids go outside to play, and come in smelling of sweat and sunshine. They play on scooters, ride bikes, sit in the sun playing with dolls, play Star Wars, swing on the swingset…

    and they’re both lean.

    All my kids have been lean playing machines, prefer fruit to junk when it’s available (I cant keep an apple in my house – seriously), and love relish trays for snacks.

    It’s later, when they learn about fries, soda, and what my ex calls “garbage food” that they fatten up.

    I try to serve healthy meals, and make sure they have healthy alternatives – and there’s no much junk at my house (partly to keep myself from eating it).

    Dunno what the answer is.

  29. It was more the opposite for me when I was a kid. My parents were not big on air conditioning. We had it, but they rarely would run it (and obviously did not allow us kids to turn it on). Instead of playing outside, I spent my summers trying to move as little as possible. I am sure that had they run the a/c, I would have spent a good portion of each day tearing it up outside, but since there was no way to find relief when the heat became too much I sat at home reading books or playing with my computer always within the reach of a fan.

    I find that as an adult I tend to be outside more, but I know that when I have had too much, my condo is a cool and comfortable 74 degrees.

  30. Interesting comment about the AC. We had AC and we too would run outside and get good & hot, then come in and sit right in front of the AC (it was in the dining room window) until we were good & cold, then start the cycle again. My mom said it wasn’t healthy to do that, but we did it anyway (while wrapped in a blanket, LOL). The only thing better was swimming, but we had to walk pretty far for that, so we didn’t do it every day.

  31. Again, playing outdoors more often has no effect on child obesity. Stop believing what the media tells you. They’re wrong.

    Here’s the real facts from Dr. Lustig: (90 minutes long!)

  32. Meh, as long as they did get some outdoor time in their wanderings, a little TV never killed anyone. We used to be out of the house all day on weekends–we’d spend hours wandering in the woods, or playing cul-de-sac baseball…and then we’d spend a few playing Super Mario or watching movies at someone’s house. We weren’t allowed video games at my house, so this was a big lure, but it’s not the only thing we did.

  33. Er… last week in New York City, heat hit record highs for this time of year– 101F and above.

    I don’t know what it was like in Las Vegas, but it seems to me that freaking out that your child chose to be indoors in air conditioning when the weather was so hot your doctor would tell you to give it acetaminophen is a little creepy.

    I don’t even like air conditioning but when it gets that hot I’ve been sleeping in the A/C’d room so the toddler can too, and I can hear him if he freaks out. Not free-range but necessary.

    I too had to be hounded outside to play when I was a kid– complete free range would have left me in the house reading 90% of the time. On the other hand, the best way to get away from parents who thought of more chores for us was to be away. And I enjoyed my free-range days.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if people are *only* doing free range to keep their kids slim, signing them up for sports camp as many hours as possible is more honest.

  34. I think neddo has a good point. When there is no way to get relief from the heat, and you know it, it’s much more tempting just to sit, sit, sit on those hot days, and do less than you normally would even during the time you spend inside. When the relief is available, you’re more willing to work up a sweat, knowing you can cool down eventually.

    If kids want to do the couch potato thing in tolerably hot conditions (yeah, don’t send them out into the desert sun in a heat wave) because they’re hooked on the air conditioning, I make them spend SOME time outside and active before they turn on the TV. These days they don’t even ask to turn on the TV without prefacing it with “I was out a lot already.” But I try to reasonable about it, and I daresay most people are. Last week during the extended 90 degree weather they knew the rules were bent.

  35. A word to the wise: I do not tolerate heat too well. I would not wish heat stroke on anyone.

    On 90+ degree days, if people do not want to move, leave it be. Please remember that our body temps hovers around 98 degrees. Please also note that 70 degrees is considered normal room temperature.

    Encourage activitiy -even when it’s 80 degrees out, But if it’s more than 85 degrees, don’t push it. Cooking ourselves and our vital organs ain’t worth it.

  36. Totally agree… we (me, my brother and my friends) weren’t a healthy weight as children because of some government healthy eating or exercise campaign.

    We were of a healthy weight because almost every day we’d be playing outside, spending much more time exercising than any parent could spend supervising us…

    I think the free-time issue’s a key point, working parents barely have enough seconds in a day as it is, if the only time their kids get real exercise is when the parents have some totally free time… the kids might as well be tied to their beds!

    Jeff.

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