Parents, wake up! Almost one out of every five kids in the U.S. is obese, yet way too many parents are unaware when their child is one of the fat ones. Obese and overweight children are found in every socioeconomic and racial group. They're in the homes of college-educated parents, wealthy parents, even thin parents. Nevertheless, health experts agree that one of the biggest roadblocks to dealing with childhood obesity is denial. "Several studies have shown that parents don't recognize their children are overweight," says Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition & Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control. "A little excess weight is now considered normal."
Not only is it not normal, it is deadly. Overweight children have dramatically high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and chronic joint problems. And no, these are not troubles that start plaguing them once they grow up; doctors regularly see high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance in children. Long gone are the days when Type 2 diabetes was referred to as adult-onset.
Children are obese if their body mass index is equal to or greater than the 95th percentile of the age and gender-specific body mass charts compiled by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. A child who is in the 85th percentile is overweight -- and at risk for obesity. If your pediatrician is using words like "at risk" or "obese," do something, now. We are not talking baby fat that will eventually disappear, not even in a toddler (and yes, 10.5% of children under age 5 are considered obese). We are also not talking about predestination: Less than 5% of childhood obesity is the result of genetic or biological causes. Fat children get that way because they eat too much and exercise too little, and they could be taking their cues from you.
THE SELF-ESTEEM FACTOR
Behaviors can be changed, however. Granted, few things are harder than motivating a child -- especially a teenager -- to lose weight. It's even harder if the parents are obese. Start by being supportive, and let your child know your love is unconditional. Study after study has shown that children with low self-esteem have the worst outcomes on any weight-loss plan. Next, involve the whole family, even if only one child has a problem. You'll be doing your thinner kids a favor as well. As many middle-aged parents have learned, bad eating habits developed while young can become toxic later in life.
Bottom line: You're in charge. Your child doesn't have to be doomed to a lifetime of being fat. Making modest alterations to the family lifestyle can start your kid on the road to recovery or keep him or her from putting on extra pounds in the first place. So here's a top-10 list of tips for parents to keep their kids healthy:
-- Eat at home. Fast-food restaurants are well-known fat factories, but table service establishments can be just as bad. Portions are large, ingredients are loaded with trans fats, and if you are ordering from the kid's menu, you will almost certainly end up with french fries. A survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest shows that a child who orders a cheeseburger, fries, cola, and an ice cream sundae off the kid's menu at one popular steak house chain ends up consuming 1,700 calories and 58 grams of fat. That's more than the total recommended daily intake for many adults.
-- Get your kids to help with the shopping and cooking. It's a good way to get them more interested in what you're serving, and it's fun.
-- Read nutrition labels. Have you looked at what's in a Kraft's (KFT ) Lunchable? Or some of those so-called nutrition bars? These convenience foods are loaded with fats, carbohydrates, and sugar. They are not good for your child, no matter what their makers say. Approach packaged foods, particularly the ones that claim they are healthy, as you would a used car: Don't believe the hype until you've read the fine print on the nutritional label.
-- Eat together as a family. Dish out the food on the kids' plates rather than serving it family-style. It will be easier to control portion sizes. And remember, kids don't need adult-size portions. "If you overfeed toddlers or young children, they will consistently seek out more than their body needs," warns Dr. Ellen Rome, director of adolescent medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
-- Don't eat in front of the television or computer. This is one of the biggest causes of overeating, because viewers are too distracted to notice when they're full.
-- Limit screen time. Kids spend an average of 24 hours a week in front of a TV or video game, and the risk of obesity correlates directly with the amount of TV watched. Experts suggest cutting down viewing time to 14 hours a week at most. Use the time saved to go on a family walk or for other physical activities.
-- Keep junk food out of the house. It's a lot easier than saying no.
-- Take a stand against soda and juice. They are among the biggest culprits behind childhood obesity. And yes, fruit juice is full of empty calories, just like soda. Get your kids to drink water or low-fat milk.
-- Don't use food as a reward. There are plenty of better ways to motivate children -- a special outing, time off from chores, even money. You could teach them fiscal responsibility along with health awareness.
-- Figure out what will motivate your child. Telling kids to lose weight because it's good for them rarely works, so come up with a goal they might actually want to work toward. "We find with girls it is often wanting to wear the latest clothes, while boys might want to be part of a sports team," says Alexandra Salazar, a clinical nutritionist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York who works with overweight children and teens.
A lot of these suggestions might seem daunting to a family mired in an unhealthy lifestyle. So don't be afraid to seek help. A doctor or nutritionist might get through to your child better than you can. They can also tailor actions to your family and convince you the changes will be worth the effort. Remember, your child will not grow out of a weight problem -- it will only get worse. What better reason to take action today?
By Catherine Arnst