As millions of American adults' waistlines expand, so do an alarming number of their children's. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent, or nearly nine million children and teens ages 6 to 19 are overweight, triple the proportion in 1980. In addition, over 10 percent of younger preschool children between ages 2 and 5 are overweight, up from 7 percent in 1994.
However, there are several steps concerned parents can take to save their children from this unhealthy trend, says Terri McFadden, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine and director of ambulatory pediatrics at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital of the Grady Health System.
In many cases, the needed changes must start with the face in the mirror - the parents themselves and the lifestyles they promote in their own family.
"The only way to combat this epidemic of obesity is with diet and exercise," Dr. McFadden says. "A lot of times kids are in families where everybody is overweight, which means you can't just change the child's eating habits. It all starts with the example parents provide. As a parent, if you are constantly telling your child to eat salad and vegetables, yet you're always eating Quarter Pounder sandwiches, your child is looking at your behavior - not your words. The same goes with exercise. If you're out walking, riding a bicycle, or going to the gym, your child realizes that those activities are an important part of a healthy lifestyle."
Here are some of Dr. McFadden's suggestions for parents:
* Begin at the beginning! Breastfeed your baby in the first year of life. Breastfeeding has been found to decrease the risk of obesity in later childhood.
* Introduce children to a variety of fruits and vegetables and other healthy food choices at an early age.
* Don't force your child to "clean" his plate. If he is full and says he's satisfied, accept it. Forcing a child to eat all of his food could become a precursor to overeating. Children need to learn to recognize and honor the indicators of fullness.
* Choose healthy adult meals for children when dining out. Although you may pay more, your child will be able to eat healthier foods like vegetables and grilled meats rather than the standard child's fare. Plan to take the leftovers home.
* Monitor television viewing and computer and video time. The more time children spend watching television, surfing the Internet and playing video games, the more likely they are to become sedentary and obese.
* Work with your child's school to develop healthy meal choices, or send a healthy lunch from home.
* Encourage your child to play outside. Furthermore, go outside and play with them. You will become a role model to your child while also promoting good, healthy family interaction.
* Become an advocate for recess. Studies indicate that children who have recess perform better in school.