You’ve no doubt heard the sobering statistics: At least one child in five is overweight in the United States. The percentage of overweight children has more than doubled since 1970. About 8 percent of 4- and 5-year-old children are overweight, nearly double 20 years ago.
It’s painfully clear that 2004 America isn’t conducive to providing kids with healthful foods and opportunities to exercise. When parents are exhausted from working all day, it’s hard to prepare balanced meals. When TV and the Internet beckon, it is difficult to get kids to play outside. And when restaurants serve up double and triple the recommended portions, kids think stuffing themselves is normal.
“Overweight children are symptoms of a broken system – a system that includes societal trends as well as family lifestyle patterns,” says Colleen Thompson, M.S., R.D., who along with colleague Ellen Shanley, MBA, R.D., CD-N, has written the new book Overcoming Childhood Obesity (Bull Publishing, 2004). “It’s a complex problem, but the solution is simple. Not easy, but simple. Your child must eat more healthfully and exercise more. It’s the small day-to-day decisions you make for your children that, taken together, comprise the solution. And becoming aware of those decisions is the first and most important step.”
Therein lies the reason for Thompson and Shanley’s book. Packed with practical tips, it is aimed at helping parents create a healthy environment that prevents childhood obesity and helps already-overweight kids slim down. Because children have different needs at different ages, the book is divided into separate chapters for young children, school-aged children and teenagers. There’s even a lengthy section on menu planning, food preparation and nutritious recipes.
Thompson and Shanley reveal simple secrets to overcoming childhood obesity:
Slimdown Secret No. 1
Insist that kids eat breakfast. Eating breakfast jump-starts the metabolism, fueling the body to be ready for the activities of the day. And children who don’t eat a good breakfast tend to overeat at lunch. Ideally, your child should have servings from at least three food groups from the Food Guide Pyramid. But if you run out of time or if your child just isn’t hungry in the mornings, insist that he drink a glass of juice and munch on a breakfast bar. Any breakfast is better than none.
Slimdown Secret No. 2
Make fast food forays few and far between – but not forbidden. When you’re too tired to cook and the kids are begging for burgers, it’s easy to succumb to the lure of the drive-through. While Thompson and Shanley agree that it’s unrealistic to totally ban fast food, limiting it is a must. You have to set aside time to plan healthful menus for the week – and stick to your plan. Furthermore, you can make fast food less of a fat hazard: Order low-fat milk instead of soda, order a side salad instead of fries and “comparison shop” the restaurant’s nutritional guidelines for calories. Also, consider ordering one adult meal and sharing it with your child. This is a good way to teach her about reasonable portion sizes, which are a fraction of what’s served up in a typical American restaurant.
Slimdown Secret No. 3
Eschew the sugary drinks. “Kids drink an alarming amount of soda,” says Shanley. “People forget that liquid calories count, too. Consider the fact that Americans are now served soda in 20-ounce bottles – that’s an additional 178 calories per serving. And many parents congratulate themselves on the fact that their kids drink a lot of juice. They are misguided. Though 100 percent fruit juice can be a part of a healthy diet, kids over 2 should be drinking low-fat milk and water more than anything else.”
Slimdown Secret No. 4
Bring back civilized family meals. You may think that the environment in which food is consumed has nothing to do with body weight. Wrong, say the authors. They emphasize over and over that “civilized” mealtimes – rather than meals eaten on the run or wolfed down in front of the TV – help kids learn a healthful attitude toward food. “Mealtimes are all about modeling the proper place of food in our lives,” says Thompson. “Kids learn by example how to sit at the table, eat slowly, chew thoroughly and recognize when they’re full. Remember, it takes up to 20 minutes for the brain to tell the body it is full. Rushing through meals leads to overeating.”
Slimdown Secret No. 5
Let kids take control in the kitchen. Children should be active participants, not passive recipients, in all aspects of mealtime. Don’t fill your child’s plate for her. Again, kids need to learn self-regulation; giving them control over how much they eat is better for them in the long run. Research reveals that children may eat up to 25 percent less when they serve themselves at meals. Also, it’s a good idea to get your kids involved in food preparation. When children help plan menus and prepare meals, they are much more likely to be willing to try new (i.e., nutritious) foods. This is especially important for overweight children, as it gives them an opportunity to “take charge” of their relationship with food. Overcoming Childhood Obesity includes tips for how kids of all ages can help out in the kitchen and offers a variety of recipes your family can prepare together.
Slimdown Secret No. 6
Make exercise a must – for everyone. Everyone talks about the roadblocks: hundreds of cable channels, video games, the Internet. But too few parents do anything about it. It’s up to you to turn off the tube and shut down the computer and exercise as a family. (That’s right, you have to get off the couch, too!) This could mean walking around the block, working in the garden, playing at the park, going on a weekend hike. “Exercise needs to be fun, not reminiscent of a military drill,” says Shanley. “The good news is that what’s fun for kids is usually fun for adults, too. And going on a family bike ride is certainly a better way to connect emotionally than sitting around in front of the TV.”
Slimdown Secret No. 7
Practice what you preach. Of all the mistakes parents make, the “Do as I say, not as I do” syndrome may be the most serious. Children learn from watching you. They want to eat what they see you eating. Their approach to exercise (or lack thereof) is modeled after yours. If you watch TV from the moment you get home in the evenings, they will accept this behavior as normal. “Changing your lifestyle to set a better example for your children is not a bad thing,” says Thompson. “Most people could stand to eat more healthfully and get more exercise. You might find that making a commitment to improve your child’s health is the best thing that ever happened to yours.”
Ultimately, say the authors, creating a healthy environment for your child to grow up in has positive repercussions that go far beyond the numbers on the scale. “The lessons children learn from your efforts to promote good health are beneficial, indeed,” says Shanley. “From making good food choices, children learn moderation and self-discipline. From helping in meal preparation, they learn to share responsibility. These are values that will serve them well in every aspect of life. And when a family plays together instead of staring numbly at the TV, everyone builds stronger, closer relationships and makes the most of their limited time together. Correcting the mistakes that lead to childhood obesity may be the best thing you can do, not just for your kids, but for your entire family.”