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Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Despite temptations, there's hope and help for heavy kids

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dealing with kids' weight is one of the most delicate dances of parenthood.

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We want to make sure our children are well nourished and have a healthy, positive relationship with food. We don't want to damage their self-esteem by calling undue attention to their weight (whether they're thin or chubby), and we don't want to alienate them by constantly reminding them to slow down on snacks and get their butts off the couch. When your child is overweight, it's hard to find words to voice your concerns, words that won't push the child toward even worse eating and exercise habits, and away from you.

Finding a way to help kids deal with their excess weight has never been so crucial. The federal National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimates that about a third of all children and teens are overweight; 16 percent are obese. Recent research has connected being obese as a teenage girl with dramatically increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis as an adult. Obese teen girls, also according to recent research, are more likely to suffer infertility as adults. Overweight teens of both sexes are at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, a disease once reserved for older adults. And overweight adolescents too often turn into overweight adults. Though some experts may dispute that being overweight translates to ill health, numerous studies have shown associations between being overweight and such conditions as cardiovascular disease and many cancers.

Sometimes it seems the world has conspired to make our kids fat. Ads for highly sweetened, fat-laden treats bombard them through television and computer screens. In many communities, playing outside and walking or biking to and from school is no longer the norm. Physical education has been squeezed out of schools, where the food served at lunch is often a nutritional disappointment.

If all that sounds dire, though, rising public awareness of childhood obesity as a major threat to our nation's future health has led to new initiatives to address the issue. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, offers a Web site, http://www.aap.org/obesity/about.html, dedicated to youth overweight and obesity. The National Dairy Council and the National Football League have teamed up on the "Fuel Up to Play 60" initiative (http://www.fueluptoplay60.com/index_flash.php), aimed at getting kids to "make healthy changes." And the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association four years ago joined forces to create, through their Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a program called EmpowerME (http://www.empowerme2b.org), designed to help young people take control of managing their own weight.

Kim Perry, the program's director, says, "It's a movement of young people who believe in prevention, in eating right and moving around more." EmpowerME's online offerings are focused on two age groups: 8-to-12-year-olds are the prime target, with 13-to-17-year-olds treated as "influencers" whose behaviors set examples for the younger set.

The program encourages kids to get 60 minutes of physical activity every day (not necessarily all at once, Perry notes); to make water, milk and 100 percent fruit juices their primary beverages; to eat fruit or vegetables at every meal; to limit total screen time (watching TV, using the computer or playing video games) to one to two hours a day; and to get nine hours of sleep every night. The Web site offers tons of tips and tools for meeting those goals.

Eventually, participants learn how to become advocates in their homes, schools and communities, looking for ways to increase access to healthful food and make outdoor play safe and available.

Dawson MacKay of Bethesda had already lost weight by the time he joined EmpowerME.

"I was a little overweight in third grade," he says. "My parents are both doctors, and they informed me. They tried to be nice to me. They told me I was overweight and that that wasn't good, so I should try to eat better and eat less and start exercising more."

Dawson says he took their advice in stride. "They talk to me a lot about health, and they're usually right," he says. Losing weight "wasn't too hard," he says, "but I had to get out of my regular routine."

Today 10-year-old Dawson, now in fifth grade, eats an admirably healthful diet, plays several sports and rides his bike to school, where he's working to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches. Though he takes his own lunch (ham or turkey with cheese and lettuce, two pieces of fruit and some Goldfish or Cheddar Bunny crackers), he's concerned about what he sees served in the cafeteria.

"Today," Dawson reports, "it was fish-and-cheese nuggets, french fries and chocolate pudding." As if that weren't bad enough, Dawson adds, "Some kids go back and get a second lunch."


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