A grim announcement was made at a recent American Heart Association Conference - nearly a third of children living in the U.S. are overweight, and one-fifth fall into the dangerous category of obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 6.5% in 1980 to 17.0% in 2006. The rate among adolescents aged 12 to 19 more than tripled, increasing from 5% to 17.6%...An estimated 61% of obese young people have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure."
It is no secret that this increase is attributed to poor eating habits and lack of exercise in young people in the U.S. According to the 2007 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey posted on the CDC's Website, unhealthy eating habits are prevalent among teenagers. The study indicates that among U.S. high school students:
o 79% ate fruits and vegetables less than five times per day during the 7 days before the survey.
o 34% drank a can, bottle, or glass of soda or pop (not including diet soda or diet pop) at least one time per day during the 7 days before the survey.
It is likely that the increase in childhood obesity will eventually force our already strained healthcare system to contend with a significant rise in patients with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, breathing problems and sleep disorders in years to come. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, these health conditions are a direct result of complications from obesity.
Pediatricians are warning we must take steps to reduce this growing epidemic. Here are some suggestions - tried-and-true reminders as well as more radical approaches - to help parents steer their children towards healthy eating habits that will stay with them for life:
Whenever possible, eat meals together. Parents have heard this many times, but the benefits of turning off distractions and giving some real time to a meal simply can't be overstated. The benefits, and opportunities to improve eating habits, abound when families engage in regular, sit-down mealtimes:
Parents can really see what goes in, what gets pushed around the plate, and what's altogether avoided.
Parents can model good behavior, from eating vegetables to using appropriate table manners.
Rituals help a family connect, and eating together allows ample opportunity to establish such rituals.
When eating together, try these steps to improve kids' dietary habits:
Get kids involved in the kitchen. When foods and their preparation become more familiar, they stand a better chance to be consumed. Besides, what boy would turn down the chance to use a big knife, if even only to chop carrots?
Try new recipes, or new approaches to old ones. You may only be able (or inspired) to do this once or twice a month, but do so all the same. Sometimes a new presentation is all it takes to make a healthy food appealing. Did you ever hear of the Boy Scout troop that was given a donation of canned minestrone soup for a campout? The leaders were terrified the kids would revolt, until one of them decided to call it "pizza soup." Dinner was an overwhelming success.
Start small - with portion sizes, that is. Kids' appetites change every day, so let them learn how to self-regulate their intake.
Try everything at the table, even if it's only a teaspoonful. Research suggests that kids need to see a new food up to ten times before they will realize they actually like it, so don't give up offering new things.
Insist that vegetables be eaten before treats or desserts - taking this one step further, insist that vegetables be eaten before anything else! This is an easy step to "spin" - tell the kids that it gets the vegetables out of the way. It also ensures the veggies get in, and it avoids the "I can't eat those, I'm already full" ploy.
Don't insist on "the clean plate club." This goes hand-in-hand with small portions and eating vegetables first. Allow kids to listen to their bodies.
Talk about good food in a positive way - as well as delivering a healthy message, conversing during a meal slows down the intake, and allows everyone's bodies time to feel satisfied. If someone doesn't like a certain food, ask what could be done to make the food taste better, then try it out.
When eating together isn't possible (such as lunchtime), apply the lessons learned at home.
Pack lunch. It is the only way to control portions and content.
Use reusable containers. Baggies and throwaways only encourage food waste, and you will never know what has been eaten. Kids bring home their leftovers in reusable containers, so you can see whether they have eaten well. Better still, besides helping you determine portion sizes, those leftovers make a great after school snack - just be sure to include an ice pack so everything is still safe to eat in mid-afternoon.
Don't send treats or desserts in school lunches - Yes, eliminating cookies from the lunchbox is radical, but save the treats for after school, when you can be sure the good food has already gone in.
Make a "lunch list." On a sheet of paper, make three columns. Label them "main dish," "side dish," and "fruit/veggie". In each column write down the foods that your child likes, then post the list on the refrigerator. Let your child use the list to plan lunches by picking something from each column. This way the child has some control over what they receive, but you can still get "the good stuff" in the lunch box without having to rack your brain in the morning to cobble together a balanced meal. The lunch lists also help with grocery shopping - if one kid is in a banana phase, you'll always know to have them on hand.
Anticipate the hungry spots in between meals, and serve snacks before kids (or you) are ravenous.
Snacks are essential, but they don't have to be fat or sugar laden to be appealing: fresh and dried fruit, fresh vegetables, nuts, popcorn, pretzels, crackers, cheese and baked chips are all handy to fill in the day. Furthermore, timing is essential - bring out the healthy snacky things before kids ask for them. Neither do junky stuff and soda have to be forbidden, but they should be viewed, and served, as a treat - while watching the big game, or at a birthday, or on holidays, for example.