It's extremely important for kids of this age to continue (or to start) to lead a healthy lifestyle, including eating nutritious meals, as well as getting plenty of exercise and adequate sleep every day. These positive health habits will help children grow strong, stay healthy, and decrease the likelihood that they will become obese.
Childhood obesity rates have increasing dramatically in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2004, 18.8% of school-aged children were obese (!), versus 4% of children 30 years before in 1974. Children's skyrocketing rate of obesity is worrisome because it greatly increases children's risk for remaining obese in adulthood, which in turn raises their risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and premature death as adults. Obese children may also develop associated health problems during the middle childhood stage, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and respiratory problems. Obesity can also set the stage for problems with self esteem, depression, anxiety and social ostracism, and/or being victimized by bullies.
Healthy diet and adequate exercise are important in preventing Type II diabetes in childhood as well as obesity. Diabetes is a metabolic disease in which the body cannot properly metabolize (break down) the sugars from food. Because the body cannot metabolize sugars, the sugars accumulate in the bloodstream instead and ultimately stress children's kidneys, heart, circulatory system, and eyes. Insulin, which is created in the pancreas, is the chemical that breaks down breaks down blood sugar. In Type II diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin to deal with all the sugars coming into the body. This medical diagnosis used to be called "adult-onset diabetes" because the disorder primarily affected adults with poor eating and activity habits. Today, however, however, this illness is now diagnosed in America's children far more than in adults. It is now referred to as "Type II diabetes", to reflect this shift in prevalence.
In contrast to the many youth who overeat and don't get enough exercise, other children become obsessed with over-controlling their food intake and with exercising too much. With the constant barrage of perfect, photoshopped bodies in the media today, many children are feeling pressure at younger and younger ages to imitate those images. Children as young as 6 are reporting that they are trying to lose weight by dieting. Overemphasis on extreme thinness can put children at risk for poor self-esteem, unhealthy exercise patterns, and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Children who embrace healthy eating and exercise habits during middle childhood will have a much easier time maintaining a healthy lifestyle through adolescence and adulthood than individuals who try to make the shift later in life. Teaching children to habitually eat moderate portion sizes and to choose healthy foods in preference to junk foods becomes increasingly important as children begin to spend more time away from home and gain more independence over their food and activity choices. Even though parents have less control over their children's eating habits during middle childhood than when children were younger, it remains vital that parents continue to reinforce children's healthy habits whenever possible. For more information about how to help children build healthy eating and exercise into their lives, please see our article on Middle Childhood Parenting.