We keep hearing about childhood obesity. Recent news stories tell us over and over again that:
—The number of children classified as obese has doubled over the past two decades.
—One in five children will become obese.
—The number of U.S. children having obesity surgery has tripled in recent years.
—Now that childhood obesity is considered an epidemic, adult ailments are now more commonly found in children, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and high blood pressure.
These are startling stats, but unfortunately, few of us are listening anymore. We've heard this bad news so often that we've become numb to the seriousness of the situation that experts predict will make this generation the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
So let's stop talking about it and do something about it. But where to start?
Who's to blame?
Let's look for the root cause and start there. In the typical blame game, we could point a finger in many directions:
—Fast food restaurants: American kids eat a fast-food meal one out of every three days.
—School lunches: One in every five public schools in the U.S. sells branded fast food in the cafeteria. One cheeseburger has 590 calories.
—The government: To balance the budget and increase instructional time, school boards across the country are doing away with recess and dropping phys ed.
—The electronic age: Video games, TVs, computers and iPods keep kids indoors and immobile.
All of this is true, but blaming restaurants, schools, the government, and electronic gadgets will not help our kids. Instead, it's time for us as parents to put love into action and take full responsibility for our children's health.
Here are some dos and don'ts that will help you make the diet and lifestyle changes that will turn those statistics around and give your children the foundation for long, healthy lives.
Model a healthy lifestyle
If you're serious about helping your child attain and/or maintain a trim and fit body, you must be the first one in your family to make the changes that will put all of you on track in this race for fitness. Whether or not you have a weight problem yourself, the way you live your life sets the bar for the lifestyle habits of your children. You can't be a junk-food eater and an inactive couch potato and expect your child to be anything different:
—Drastically reduce your intake of processed cakes (donuts, bagels, coffee cake), fast food, high-calorie vending-machine-type snacks, and soda.
—Fill your own daily diet with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and water.
—Get physically active in some small way every day: take the stairs instead of the elevator, park the car far from the store.
—To ease your stress at the end of the day, skip the donut or glass of wine and instead take a brisk walk or hit the exercise bike.
Monitor your child's leisure time
Even if you're a working parent, it's important to arrange for active, productive after-school and weekend time for your child that does not include snacking and passive electronic entertainment:
—Set a one-hour limit on time spent sitting in front of the TV/computer/video game box each day.
—Schedule active time that includes either sports participation or family outdoor activities such as walking, biking, or hiking.
—When they are old enough to handle the responsibility, let your children walk, bike or skate to destinations within a reasonable distance. Do not drive them or allow them to cab to the movie theater that's two blocks away!
Control your child's diet
As kids get older and spend more time away from home with money in their pockets, it's tough to micro-manage every morsel of food they eat. But at the very least, make sure that the food in your home is low-cal and nutritious:
—Clean out the kitchen pantry and remove most high-calorie junk food snacks (that means potato chips, ice cream, cupcakes, sugar cereals, soda or sugar juices already in the house). Kids need to have some sweets, but all in moderation.
—Replace junk with healthy snack alternatives such as fresh fruit, celery and carrots, nuts, low-fat cheese, whole-grain English muffins with low-fat peanut butter, and low-fat yogurt.
—Do not allow anyone in your home to eat fast food more than once a week.
—Do not put your child on a restrictive diet. Remember: It is more important to be aware of what types of foods you are eating and their portion sizes than to attempt to maintain specialized "fad" diets. Most "diets" are unrealistic and promote deprivation rather than promoting a healthy lifestyle change and smart decision-making.
—Practice portion control. In 1987 we were drinking 6?oz. bottles of soda with 85 calories; today the typical bottle is 20 ounces and 250 calories. A fast-food cheeseburger in 1987 contained 333 calories; today it's 590 calories. This is part of the reason why we are a super-sized nation. Put less food on the plate – it's as simple as that.
—Create a daily meal plan that focuses on these three key elements: variety — serve different foods from all the food groups; balance —offer enough servings from each of the groups to meet nutritional needs; and moderation —not too much of any one food or food group.
Practice saying "No"
Give yourself permission to say "no" with confidence. You're the parent; you have the right and the responsibility to be in charge of your child's health and well-being:
—"No, you cannot have a second helping."
—"No, you cannot eat ice cream for lunch."
—"No, you cannot have soda with your meal."
—"No, you cannot have a car ride to the corner."
—"No, you cannot watch any more TV today."
Become an advocate for healthy food in school
As a parent, you do have some clout over what your children eat at school. Of course, you can pack up their lunch bag with nutritious foods, but if non-nutritious foods are offered for sale to all the other children, it will be hard for many youngsters to resist dumping their homemade whole wheat veggie wrap for a Twinkie. For this reason, many parent groups have made changes in the way food is prepared in their school cafeterias. A sampling of these efforts include:
—At Promise Academy charter school in Harlem, all meals served in the cafeteria are cooked from scratch, and the menu (heavily subsidized by private donations), now includes dishes like turkey lasagna with a side of fresh zucchini.
—In Santa Monica, Calif., there is a salad bar at every school in the district, with produce brought in from the local farmer's market.
—At Grady High School, outside Atlanta, the student body president, a vegetarian, persuaded the company that runs the cafeteria to provide tofu stir fry, veggie burgers and hummus.
—In Irvington, N.Y., a group of committed parents established a No Junk Food Week, where all unhealthy food was removed from the cafeteria and replaced with offerings from a local chef called Sushi Mike and donations from a nearby Trader Joe's.
Because one of the major sources of fat and sugar in a child's diet comes from school lunches, you might begin fighting for your child's health by talking with school administrators about ripping out the snack-laden vending machines and removing high-calorie, high-fat foods from the menu. That alone will help lots of kids resist the temptations that spoil even the best of intentions.
Is it easy to keep our children trim and fit while living in a junk-food, high-calorie world? No, not at all. But that's why our kids can't do it alone. They need our guidance, support, and example to help them establish lifestyle habits that will lead to a healthy, long life.
Tony Sparber is the founder/owner of three New Image Camps: Camp Pocono Trails, PA; Camp Vanguard, FL; and Camp Ojai, CA — designed to provide comprehensive summer weight-loss programs for pre-teens and teenagers. For more information, call 1-800-365-0556 or visit www.newimagecamp.com.