BY CHANTAL BRENTON
According to the 1999–2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm), the prevalence of overweight or obesity in children and youth in the United States is over 15%. Some experts now place one child in four as being overweight. The dramatic increase in the number of overweight children and the health implications of this epidemic are profound and warrant strong and comprehensive prevention efforts by parents, schools, and pediatricians.
Conflicting messages are received by children in their environment, so it’s no wonder that they are confused and ignore all the right messages. Parents preach to their children about their weight issues, and yet constantly bring sugar and refined wheat products into the home and place computers and televisions in their children’s rooms to encourage inactivity. Schools teach about healthy diets, and yet have vending machines outside the classroom door and program little or no physical education into the day.
WHAT IS OBESITY?
A body mass index (BMI) of 30 in children is considered obese. You can figure out your child’s BMI by visiting the Center for Disease Control’s BMI Calculator at http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpabmi/Calculator.aspx.
Extra weight increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, peer ridicule, and more for anyone. On paper, the statistics are shocking enough, says award-winning writer and author of The Teenage Body Book, Dr. Kathy McCoy, “The obesity rate for teens has tripled over the past 25 years and with this increase in average weight, type 2 diabetes, once unknown in young people, is now diagnosed in 45% of all new cases involving children or teens.”
Medical experts fear that high blood pressure and heart disease could become increasingly prevalent among young adults, making this generation of teens the first to have potentially poorer health and shorter life spans than their parents.”
Dr. McCoy remarks that in the sensitive preteen or teen years, it is especially painful, frustrating and alarming to see these adolescents deal with cruel remarks, to see them on the sidelines in sports or social events, or to know that they face significant health risks even in young adulthood.
WHAT TO DO
So what can you do to help your teen lose weight and feel better? Dr. McCoy offers the following tips:
HEALTH FOCUS—Put the emphasis on good health, not weight, and make it a goal for the whole family. Kids hate being singled out and criticized. Approaching this from a “YOU need to lose weight!” point of view will guarantee a battle of the wills. Instead, ask the child for help in making an action plan to promote better family eating and exercise habits. Ask your teen to research nutritional information online or to read books and articles with you to come up with some strategies. Engage your child in meal planning and preparation or in finding a way to wedge family exercise routines (like a walk after dinner) into your schedules.
FAMILY MEALS—Have real family meals at least once a day—not in front of the TV. Frantic family schedules have equaled fast food or processed, prepared food dinners—and expanding waistlines! With real, home-cooked meals, you can better control calories, fats, sugars, sodium and other nutritional issues. If you’re like most families where both parents work or if you are a single parent, this might seem like a good, but impractical idea. Actually, it’s just a matter of creating new habits: the need to plan in advance, use convenience items like a slow cooker or make a week’s worth of meals over the weekend and freeze them for weeknight dinners.
THE ROOT ISSUES—Look at and discuss all of your less than ideal eating behaviors. Maybe your child craves junk food when she’s bored and watching T.V. Maybe you want cookies or ice cream when you’ve had a rough day. Maybe you dive into high calorie comfort food when you’re angry or frustrated. Pay attention to the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Discuss all this with your family—and come up with ways to comfort or reward yourselves that have nothing to do with food.
BREAKFAST—Make it convenient for everyone in the family to eat breakfast. Again, advance planning can help: fresh fruit and yogurt in the fridge, whole grain bread and cereals in the pantry, and encouraging all to get up and get going early enough in the morning to grab a bite. Those who don’t eat breakfast tend to overeat during the rest of the day, especially in the evening. Ideally, a balanced eating plan would be a hearty breakfast, reasonable lunch and light, early dinner, with no major snacking.
MOVEMENT—Get your family moving! Trying to motivate an overweight teen to go to the gym can be frustrating and non-productive. Schedule exercise into your family routine: a family walk or bike ride after dinner doesn’t have to cut into homework or leisure time too dramatically—and the exercise is good for everyone.
SMART AND SKEPTICAL—Become smart, skeptical consumers: There are no weight loss miracles. Help your teen to avoid quick fixes. Any weight lost too quickly or with pills or highly restricted diet regimens tends to come back. Any weight loss program aside from healthy eating and exercise should be medically supervised. One such local program is O.W.L.–Optimal Weight for Life, L.L.C. This program for kids, ages 2–18 is managed by Dr. Seth Bush and offers 90-minute sessions with a registered dietitian and monthly physical exams with Dr. Bush.
Health improvement with a slow, steady weight loss of no more than two pounds a week is ideal. The loss can add up to more than 100 pounds in a year—and weight lost slowly as one changes one’s eating and exercise habits is more likely to stay off.
IN IT TOGETHER—Make a vow—together—to enjoy a full and healthy life now. You don’t have to wait until you or your child is slim to do this. Good nutrition, regular exercise and the feeling that “we’re all in this together” can make a positive difference for everyone in your family!
Kathy McCoy, Ph.D. is a teen psychology and health expert who has appeared as a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winner of the American Library Associations’ Best Book for Young Adults Award, The Teenage Body Book contains everything teenagers and their parents need to know about nutrition, health, fitness, emotions, and sexuality.
ADDITIONAL HEALTHY EATING TIPS
→ Parents should limit their child’s television watching, video game playing. and computer time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of sedentary activities outside of school.
→ Limit high-fat, fast foods and high-sugar drinks and reduce the amount of “junk food” available. Soda and other sweetened drinks add extra calories and get in the way of good nutrition. Water and milk are the best drinks for kids. Use the food pyramid (www.kidshealth.org/kid/stay_healthy/food/pyramid.html) to help guide your food choices for your family. The emphasis should be on whole grains, vegetables and fruits. If a loaf of bread states “whole wheat” then it is not “whole grain.”
→ Watch portion size. Check the food pyramid for this, too. Don’t preach portion control, serve it.
→ School lunches are an integral part of a child’s diet. So monitor your child’s nutrition choices in the school cafeteria with online prepayment systems like MealpayPlus (www.mealpayplus.com). Log onto your child’s account and view what they ate that day—carrots or Doritos, pizza or turkey wrap, Gatorade or low-fat milk. Open up the lines of communication and talk to your children about what they chose to eat at school.#
Chantal Brenton of MealpayPlus (www.MealpayPlus.com)