Watching Your Kids' Weight
Jill Max, HealthAtoZ contributing writer
Everyone knows that sitting down with a bag of potato chips or devouring a supersized slab of chocolate cake is not part of a healthy diet. Yet, we do it all the time and so do our kids.
America's eating habits are taking their toll on the younger generation, according to a report by the Surgeon General. The prevalence of overweight among adolescents has tripled since 1980, according to The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. About 15 percent of children and teens 6 to 19 years are overweight. More than 10 percent of children between ages 2 and 5 are overweight, up from 7 percent in 1994. Weight-related health problems could reverse many of the health gains achieved in recent decades, warned former Surgeon General David Satcher.
In fact, weight problems are already eroding our children's health. The American Diabetes Association published a report saying that about 20 percent of childhood diabetes cases are type 2, non-insulin dependent diabetes, which is linked to being overweight. Obesity also has been associated with an increase in asthma, and its connection with heart disease later in life is already well established.
An ounce of prevention
When it comes to your child, preventing excessive weight gain is a lot easier than trying to address an existing problem, according to Joan Carter, a registered dietician at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine. "It's very rare that we put a child on a diet," she says. "We try to let them grow into their weight."
While some people may be predisposed to being heavy, weight gain is mostly due to behavior, Carter says, and that's where parents can have a big influence. "The number one thing you can do is to be a good role model," she says.
It probably comes as no surprise that good eating habits start at home. "Making eating at home a priority and having healthy meals is important," Carter adds, noting it also is important that the family sits down together at a scheduled time, without the TV, and that everyone eats the same food. If you want your kids to drink milk instead of soda, for instance, the best way to do it is by setting an example.
That doesn't mean that your kids can never have a treat. According to Carter, there should be "everyday" foods, such as fruit, and "sometimes" foods, such as sweets. There's no reason you can't combine the two, she says, such as by serving cookies with milk or offering frozen yogurt.
Snacks may be the most difficult part of a healthy diet for some parents. Nevertheless, they should be included in your child's diet. "Try to make it so the foods that kids have easy access to are healthy foods," Carter says. Having fruit peeled or cut up, for instance, makes it easy for a child to grab a quick healthy snack from the fridge.
But what about when your child is away from home? Eating out can be a problem because portion sizes are out of control, Carter notes. She suggests ordering two entrees and putting them in the middle of the table so that every meal is a family meal. This also helps avoid the fried foods on most children's menus.
Establishing good eating habits is particularly important for those times when you're not around to suggest grilled rather than fried chicken. "When kids are away from you, they're going to be making their own choices anyway, so you have to instill good values," Carter says.
While it may seem daunting to try and change your whole eating pattern, taking it one step at a time can make it seem less overwhelming. Carter suggests picking one thing to work on and starting there. It may be downsizing snacks, limiting soda or adding a piece of fruit every day. Whatever you do, every little bit helps send the right message to your family.
There are lots of small steps you can take to ensure your kids are eating healthy amounts of the right foods. Here are some tips from Carter and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:
- Be creative. Try something different, like washing and clipping grapes into small bunches and putting them in the freezer. They're sweet and cold and they last. Try it with bananas, too.
- Cut down on fat. Try low-fat dairy products, poultry without skin and lean meats to get flavor without a lot of calories.
- Serve healthy snacks and have smaller meals. Stock your kitchen with healthy lunch and snack foods, such as raisins, popcorn and fruit.
- Don't use food as punishment or reward.
- Keep track. Put a chart of the food pyramid on your fridge, and let your children keep track of how many servings they're eating from each food group every day. You also can ask them to help plan, shop for and prepare meals. They're likely to make better choices if they're involved in the process. Plus, research shows that kids usually eat the dishes they fix and that parents do, too.
- Self-serve. Let your children help themselves. Carter says that children take the appropriate amount when they're allowed to serve themselves. Encourage your children to take small bites because they tend to eat less this way. Also, outlaw eating out of the box or container. If you put pretzels in a bowl, you're likely to end up with one ounce instead of six.
- Get moving. Encourage informal play virtually everyday. If you can't participate with your kids during the week, plan on being active during the weekend. Go skating, take a walk, rake leaves or clean the house with your children.
- Turn off the TV. Never eat in front of the TV. While you're at it, encourage your children to do something active instead of watching TV. Cutting down on channels and strictly limiting TV-watching time can affect health in a positive way.