The patterns and attitudes children learn at home can help them develop a positive body image and healthy lifelong eating and exercise habits.
"We respond to children too often with food when they are tired, sad, angry," says Houston nutritionist E.C. Henley. "They learn to respond inappropriately, not being able to discriminate when they're hungry. They eat when they're tired instead of resting.
"Instead of allowing children to learn to identify when they are hungry, we teach them to ignore their natural physiology. We teach them not to recognize their own hunger."
Rather than encouraging children to clean their plates or using food as a reward, punishment or pacificer, she says, food should be viewed as one part of life and incorporated into children's daily routine, like brushing their teeth or buckling their seat belts.
"Keep eating a formal activity -- not in front of the television set, but at the table," says Dr. C. Wayne Callaway, director of the Center for Clinical Nutrition at George Washington University Medical Center. "Encourage any kind of physical activity that a child can enjoy."
Finally, he says, discourage children from dieting -- particularly with extremely low-calorie diets, such as 800 calories a day. Overweight youngsters should have their eating and exercise patterns evaluated by a qualified physician or dietitian who will recommend an appropriate eating and exercise plan.
Teach children exercises they can enjoy for the rest of their lives, such as hiking, climbing, running, bicycling and tennis, not just competitive sports, advises Theodore B. Van Itallie, director of the Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York.
He emphasizes "defensive eating," choosing a variety of nutritious foods from the four basic food groups. Within each group are foods that have more or fewer calories. Learn to be selective.
Parents can encourage a positive body image in their children, too.
"A person's body should be pleasing and give pleasure to the owner," write New York social workers Lela Zaphiropoulos and Jane R. Hirschmann in their book, "Are You Hungry? A Completely New Approach to Raising Children Free of Food and Weight Problems." "Just as we want our child to develop her own organic sense of hunger, we also want her to build a positive sense of her body.
"Babies do not look in the mirror to assess their bodies. For years the assessment is done for them and is reflected in the mirrored glances of the parent. When this mirroring conveys the parent's negative feeling, the child's sense of her body can be damaged."