Weight and Obesity
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Childhood Weight Gain

The number of American kids who are overweight has increased by more than 50% in the last 20 years. In the U.S. today, at least one child in five is overweight.

Overweight children are at much greater risk of becoming overweight adults — and suffering a host of health problems go along with that.

Many parents of overweight children are tempted to put the blame on genetics or a hormonal disorder. But more often it's a lack of physical activity, due in part to increasingly sedentary recreation habits, and poor eating habits that are to blame.

Obesity and being overweight do tend to run in families: A child is more likely to be overweight if one of his parents or siblings is heavy. If both parents are overweight, the likelihood that a child will struggle with extra pounds is even greater. But it's hard to say whether genes or poor lifestyle habits are being passed along from one generation to the next.

Kids just aren't moving enough

Like their parents, American kids are sedentary. Fewer than in 25% participate in vigorous daily activity. The average American child watches an average of 24 hours of television a week. And a consistent link between watching television and becoming overweight seems evident: The more time a child spends channel-surfing, the more he or she is likely to weigh. Videotapes and video and computer games also add to the problem. There's only one thing American kids spend more time doing than watching TV and videos and playing these games — sleeping.

On the dietary front, kids are eating more meals away from home, where the choices tend to include too much fat and too few fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Another disturbing trend is that children are drinking less milk and more high-calorie beverages such as juice, juice drinks, and soda (which the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called "liquid candy"). In 1994, children between the ages of 3 and 5 drank 15% less milk and 308% more juice than they did in 1977.

Overweight — or "undertall"?

As a child grows, height and weight doesn't always increase at the same rate. Growth spurts are hard to predict, which makes it hard to determine if a child is actually overweight, or just slow in catching up to his or her height. Regular doctor visits that include measuring and weighing are important, especially if you suspect a weight problem.

Jane Kirby, R.D., author of Dieting for Dummies, emphasizes that parents should put the focus on controlling weight gain rather than losing weight. "Let height catch up to weight by maintaining a slow rate of weight gain," she advises.

But "you may not always have the luxury to wait," adds Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., a pediatric nutritionist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. If a child is obese to the point where mobility and breathing are affected, he or she will probably need help from weight-loss professionals.

How you can help your child

Quick-fix, low-calorie diets aren't appropriate for children because kids have special nutritional needs related to their growth and development. Ayoob suggests parents simply feed their kids appropriately for their age, with a diet based on sound nutrition. "This is a potentially long-term issue that requires long-term solutions," he says. "So when we go about changing diets and eating habits, we want to do it gradually." Exchanging bad habits for good ones can help.

Here is expert advice on instilling healthy lifestyle habits in your kids.

Tips for eating right (whether or not your child is overweight)

How, when, and where your family eats will have a lasting impact on your children's attitudes towards food. Start them off on the right track with these tips. Put serving sizes in perspective "Children are not little adults," says Ayoob. "I see parents who are feeding their sedentary kids as though they're out plowing fields. They're not lumberjacks, they're not doing manual labor." Feed your kids portions appropriate to their age — not adult-sized platefuls. Keep healthy food on hand "Most kids don't get enough fruits, vegetables, or dairy products," says Ayoob. Stock up on food that's good for you, such as raisins, baby carrots, and mozzarella cheese sticks, so your child has the opportunity to make a healthy choice. And save the less nutritious foods, such as soda and snack cakes, for birthday parties and holidays. Encourage balance "Look at what kids are eating over the course of the day and look at what they need to balance out the day," suggests Ayoob. If your daughter is asking for an afternoon snack and hasn't had a single vegetable all day, offer her broccoli "trees" or cherry tomatoes. Let your child decide when she is full "The best approach you can use to help children control their weight is to encourage them to trust, honor, and listen to their own internal hunger and fullness signals," notes Kirby. Never reward or punish a child with food This tactic sends the wrong message about certain food groups — implying, for instance, that the only reason to eat vegetables is so you can have dessert. In the long run, it will probably backfire. Establish rules for meals Eliminate mindless munchies in front of the television. Only allow the family to eat in the kitchen or dining room, and encourage the entire family to eat dinner together.

Ways to get the family involved

Don't single out an overweight child: Involve the whole family. Teach everyone healthy habits and spare the feelings of the child with a weight problem. Here's how. Be a good role model "It's important for parents of overweight kids to take a look at their own habits," says Ayoob. "I can't emphasize this enough: Kids learn by example." If you're overweight, welcome this situation as an opportunity to improve your own health as well. Make exercise fun "If we don't encourage regular physical activity, we're only doing half the job," says Ayoob. "That doesn't mean kids have to run marathons. We're talking about age-appropriate play. And it could be something that you do as a family. Instead of going the mall and loading up on high-calorie snacks while you shop, go to the zoo, go the park, go on a family bike ride." Beat the body-image blues Our children's self-esteem is greatly influenced by our own opinions and feelings. Be careful how you refer to weight or weight gain around your child. Make sure your children know you love them — and yourself — no matter what the scale says. Ask your kids to help you plan menus, shop for groceries, and cook Supermarkets and kitchens offer powerful lessons in nutrition. A side benefit: Kids are often more adventurous about eating unfamiliar dishes when they help prepare them.

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