Earlier this month, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a troubling report underscoring what we all know: Not only are adults struggling with overeating and inactivity, but our kids are, too.
The academy's 460-page report, written by a committee of experts drawn from academia, foundations, public health and industry, offers a number of recommendations to combat childhood obesity -- including some aimed at parents. The message: You can have a big impact at home, immediately. Here are some simple suggestions that can help reduce your kids' risk of being obese:
Eat meals together. In this hurry-up world, this is one of the best ways to teach (and model) smart eating habits and healthy menus. And it's better if that meal is consumed at the kitchen or dining room table with the television turned off. Plus, if you can make at least part of the meal yourself, you'll teach your children about cooking. If you're cooking and eating healthfully yourself, odds are higher that your children will be, too.
Weigh your child yearly. While you're at it, also have height measured. Doing so is a "critically important indicator of health," the NAS committee noted. The task is best performed by a professional, such as your family doctor, who can also track your child's body mass index, which can be used to flag kids who are overweight or obese. Learn more from the Centers for Disease Contol and Prevention. www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/bmi/bmi-for-age.htm.
Let your kids help themselves. To food, that is. Penn State University research suggests that adults tend to dish out bigger serving sizes and then often expect kids to clean their plates. Both are bad ideas because they undermine a child's ability to develop normal cues for hunger and feeling full, the academy's report noted. Start letting your kids serve themselves as early as possible: Research shows that by age 5, many children will eat what is served to them even if they feel full. And yes, disband the "Clean Plate Club." Encouraging kids to finish what is on their plates teaches them to eat visually instead of by hunger or satiety. (And while this may result in the short run in children loading a dinner plate with one pea and a bunch of Tater Tots, experts say it pays off in the long run.)
Reach a healthier weight yourself. Fact is, overweight parents are more likely to have overweight kids. A recent study of more than 8,000 low-income children found that when mothers were obese in the first trimester of pregnancy, the children were more than twice as likely as others to be obese by ages 2 to 4. So by watching your weight, not only do you set a good example for your kids, but odds are you'll be healthier, too, since those extra pounds increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, certain types of cancer and arthritis. Plus, you'll have more energy to chase your kids around -- which helps them burn more calories.
Reward your kids with praise, not food or drink. Doling out cookies, candy, chips or soft drinks as rewards for good behavior erodes a child's ability to eat when hungry and stop eating when full. This practice also helps foster a preference for high-calorie food and drink, the committee noted. So offer non-food rewards: Take a bike ride. Check out a book at the library. Play your child's favorite board or video game. Go bowling together. Rent a movie.
Start healthy habits early. How early? Really early. The committee recommended that all infants be breast-fed exclusively for the first four to six months of life. That's because doing so "confers a small but significant degree of protection from childhood obesity," the committee found. For formula-fed infants, resist the urge to have babies finish the bottle. Let them be the judge of when they're full. And when solid foods are introduced, be smart about it: The committee noted that soft drinks and french fries "are being fed to infants as young as 7 months of age."
Expect rejection. Infants (in fact, people of all ages) are predisposed to prefer sweet and salty foods. So it can take a while -- at least five to 10 food exposures -- for children to accept new foods. The good news: The latest research suggests that when parents offer vegetables to children, kids are more likely eventually to accept them than when they're served at school or in other settings.
Limit "screen time" to less than two hours per day. Recent research has found that limiting exposure to entertainment media leads to reduced body weight, body fat and incidence of obesity. Screen time includes using computers, televisions and video games, but not "use of computers and other media for educational purposes," the committee said. (Yes, there's a lot of wiggle room there for children.)
Be more active. Go ahead, take 10 minutes to play catch or toss a Frisbee with your kids in the yard or park. Shoot a few hoops. Take the kids along while you walk to errands. And instead of planting yourself in front of the tube, consider rollerskating, biking, tennis, volleyball or just hiking through the woods. When you set a good example, it sends a powerful message to your children.
For snacks, try fruit or vegetables. Both this report and the report of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Committee found that kids consistently fall short on consumption of fruit and vegetables. So the committee said something that will sound familiar to Lean Plate Club members: "Make fruits and vegetables readily available in the home to encourage selection of these foods as snacks and desserts."
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