Start 'em Young

By Sharon Naylor

December 4, 2009 6 min read

The numbers are alarming. The number of overweight children who are 6 to 11 years old has more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006, and the number of overweight teens has more than tripled, going from 5 percent to 17.6 percent. These statistics, from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, show that today's children are in dire need of better nutrition and a healthier lifestyle. After all, overweight children are more likely to become overweight or obese adults. The health problems once considered "adult health problems" -- such as heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and joint problems -- are now all too prevalent among the junior high school set. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 3 American children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point and that poor dietary habits already are manifesting in artery disease among children. Extra body fat and poor nutrition also are proven risk factors for cancer.

Add to the frightening health statistics the reality that overweight children often suffer from low self-esteem and bullying at school and the message is clear: Action must be taken now to establish better nutrition for children.

There are easy changes you can make in your children's diets immediately. Julie Meyer, who is a registered dietician and a nutrition communications consultant, says: "Choose nutrient-rich foods for children. Many kids are missing out on the critical nutrients they need for growth and development, so bulk up their diets with food naturally rich in nutrients, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean proteins, such as chicken, fish and tofu. Avoid empty calories from sodas, candy and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pastries."

The solution starts in your shopping cart. If you don't buy the white bread, soda, candy and cookies, your kids don't have a supply waiting for them in the pantry. "Keep your fridge stocked with healthy, low-fat and nutrient-rich foods and that is what your family will be eating," Meyer says. "Save 'treats' for outings like pizza nights on Fridays or cake at birthday parties."

Pizza ranks among many children's favorite foods, and it also provides a great opportunity for a healthier strategy. "Allow kids to choose their own toppings for a pizza or fillings for a taco from a collection of healthier options, such as fresh veggies or avocado slices," suggests Suzanne Monroe, a food coach and author of "The Real Life Food Cookbook and Lifestyle Plan." Some healthy pizza toppings include diced green or red bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, broccoli and spinach. And using low-fat cheeses still allows for the melty texture kids love while cutting the saturated fat content way down. And they get a dose of calcium, which the CDC says children are lacking greatly, putting them at risk for early osteoporosis.

"Make sure to include a vegetable at every meal to provide a dose of antioxidants to boost immunity," Monroe says. "Keep a veggie chart of all of the veggies the family likes and those they haven't yet tried. Each week, have a child choose which new vegetable the family will try that week."

Giving children a voice in their healthier menu helps. "When kids have a say in what they are eating, they tend to be less picky and feel a sense of accomplishment if they helped to create the meal," Monroe says. Meyer agrees: "Have kids help you make a few choice recipes that are healthy and delicious. Some good ideas include whole-grain muffins, fruit kebabs or veggie dips."

Presentation is also a key motivator for kids. When fruit is used to make kebabs, children are involved in the "art" of designing the kebabs, flexing their creative muscles as they build their signature apple and pineapple "wands." When play is introduced to meal and snack preparation, kids view fruit as a friendlier diet staple.

Cut out sodas and sugar-based fruit drinks. Replace unhealthy drinks with water served in fun, themed cups and garnished with the child's choice of fruit slices. A circle of orange dropped into a glass of water gives that sweetness children crave and delivers a touch of vitamin C and fiber.

"You can keep it sweet, but naturally sweet," Monroe advises. "Eliminating refined sugar will help your entire family to feel better and have more energy. Substitute white sugar with natural sweeteners, such as honey, agave, brown rice syrup and maple syrup. These sweeteners taste just as delicious as sugar but have more nutrients and fiber, making them healthier for the body and easier on the blood sugar."

Part of making healthier eating a lasting value for your children is teaching them why you're making changes to their diets and eliminating unhealthy snacks. When you've made healthy switches, bring the child's attention to how much better he or she feels, how much more energy he or she has, how much better he or she can concentrate in school and on homework.

And of course, emphasize the importance of physical activity, a cornerstone of kids' health, by limiting computer time and encouraging sporting activities. The entire family can go for bike rides and walks together after dinner, for instance.

Speak to your child's pediatrician to tailor your child's diet according to his or her unique needs, as well as any family history of disease. You should get clearance from the doctor before you introduce new items to the child's diet -- especially any homeopathic products you've read about as nutrition boosters. If your child takes any medications regularly, a doctor's approval of dietary and vitamin changes is essential.

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