Dinner, TV and Weight--it's all connected

Cathy Arnst

There’s a tiny bit of good news and a lot of bad news out this week on the health of our children. On the plus side, the New York Times reports that Congress is considering a bill that would ban French fries, soda and other junk food from school lunch programs nationwide.

The days when children consume two orders of French fries in the school cafeteria and call it lunch may be numbered. A bipartisan group in Congress plans to introduce legislation today that would prohibit the sale in school not only of French fries but also of other fatty or sugary foods, including soft drinks.

It’s a long way from introducing a bill to enacting a law, of course, but at least the nation’s leaders are beginning to wake up and realize that we have a very bad problem. How bad? Well, check out this new study from Express Scripts, a market research firm that tracks prescription drug trends. Seems the number of children treated for type 2 diabetes has doubled over the past four years.

Type 2 diabetes just 20 years ago was called adult-onset diabetes because it was rarely seen in children. Now, according to Scripts:

The study reviewed the prescription records of at least 3.7 million U.S. children each year, and found a four-year doubling in those taking medication typically used to treat or prevent Type 2 diabetes – a rise from about 0.3 to 0.6 per thousand from 2002 to 2005. The study also identified a 25.9% increase in Type 1 diabetes prescription use, and a 37.9% increase in total prevalence of diabetes medication use for either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.
The primary cause of type 2 diabetes is overweight, and it’s not hard to figure out why the disease is skyrocketing in kids. For more bad news, check out the latest study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in the Journal of the American Medical Assocation this week:

Researchers compared weight and height statistics from 1999 through 2000 to data from 2003 to 2004. The prevalence of overweight female children and teens rose from 13.8 percent in 1999 and 2000 to 16 percent in 2003 and 2004. The percentage of overweight male children and teens increased from 14 percent to 18.2 percent.

Here's lead researcher JoAnn Mason in the Washington Post about her study:

The rate of obesity among children and adolescents is particularly sobering, she said. "We have not even begun to see the consequences of the epidemic we're seeing in children and adolescents and continuing for a lifetime," Manson said. "This is an alarming trend. It really should serve as a wake-up call that major societal changes are needed to address this epidemic."

So. let's wake up. School lunches are too often a nutritional sinkhole, but they are far from the only source of fat and sugar in kids diets. The fault, dear readers, lies mostly within ourselves. I blogged earlier this week about the link between TV and weight, and I want to stress something that you may have missed in that post—exposure to TV is the problem, not just eating in front of the TV. Researchers have found (and parents already know), that the more commercial TV that kids watch, the more they will ask for the sugary food that is relentlessly flogged to them through ads.

One way I keep such demands to a minimum is by not allowing my daughter to watch any channel with commercials (this only works if you have cable, I realize). She is restricted to PBS Kids, Noggin (carries only PBS programming until 6 pm) and the Disney Channel, which only advertises for its own movies and programming (a problem, of course, if you cannot take one more viewing of High School Musical!). No Cartoon Network, no Nickelodeon and no network TV except for one show on UPN, Thursdays at 8-- Everybody Hates Chris. That final one is not only funny (developed by Chris Rock), but portrays the kind of parents I can get behind—they are incredibly strict and demanding.
Now, I know Jesse sees Sponge Bob and the like at other kids houses, but at least she knows what is and isn’t allowed at home, and why, and she hasn’t started chafing under these restrictions. Yet.

I’d also like to get behind fellow blogger Toddi’s entry about her efforts to eat together as a family. Studies have shown that family dinners, together at the table (with the TV off!), are a good way to control overeating. I know how hard it is in these overscheduled times, but the effort will pay off down the road, because your kids will learn healthy eating habits that will stand them in good stead for a lifetime. And here’s another tip – dish out the food before serving it, rather than letting everyone help themselves family style. It’s a good way to control portions.

If any of you have suggestions about cutting down on TV or sitting down as a family, please share. We are all in this together.

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