Focus on Pediatrics: Kids overweight? Good habits start at home

Good eating habits aren’t just taught, they’re practiced

The percentage of children who are overweight continues to increase, according to statistics tracked by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 9 million children and teens ages 6 to 19 are overweight, and another 15% are considered at risk of becoming overweight.

"Children are overweight at record levels, yet obesity is a preventable health risk," says Christine Braun, MS, RD, chief of nutrition and food service at the Cheyenne (WY) Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Nutrition should be an important part of school curriculum, but it must be fun to be interesting, she says. A good way of teaching older children about food selection is to purchase nutrition education software, says Braun. In this way, students can enter the food that they ate for one day and have the program create a graph so they can see which categories they need to pay more attention to — carbohydrates, protein, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, or fats.

During preschool and kindergarten, when children often bring snacks for their class, teachers can provide a list of healthful snacks and ask parents and children to use the list when making selections. It takes 21 days for something to become a habit; so if children select healthful snacks on a regular basis, it will become habitual, says Braun.

Although good curriculum at school is helpful parents need to role-model good eating habits, says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago. "Parents have the primary responsibility in shaping children’s food habits," she says.

Parents can’t tell their children to drink more milk and then drink soda or have a huge supply of such beverages in the house, says Moores.

It’s important that parents understand the consequences of obesity in childhood, dietitians agree. Overweight children are more inclined to develop Type 2 diabetes and obesity can set the stage for heart disease in adulthood. However, telling children that they might develop diabetes or have a heart attack when they are older won’t motivate them to eat right, says Moores. "Parents need to find out what motivates their child," she explains. For example, a teen-ager would be interested in clearer skin and less oily hair, and a small child might want to run faster and jump higher.

Of course, children enjoy many of the sedentary activities that are making adults gain weight such as computers and television. Parents need to offer children opportunities for activities such as a trip to the park, says Rarback.

Sources

For information about preventing obesity in children, contact:

  • Christine Braun, MS, RD, Chief of Nutrition and Food Service, Cheyenne (WY) VA Medical Center. Contact by e-mail only: chris.braun@med.va.gov.
  • Susan Moores, MS, RD, and Sheah Rarback, MS, RD, American Dietetic Association, 216 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60606-6995. Telephone: (312) 899-0040. Web site: www.eatright.org.