"THE first steps on the long path preparing your child to win the battle against obesity are for him or her to engage in physical activity and eat healthy diets.
Over the past several decades, the prevalence of overweight children has increased dramatically in the United States, making it more likely that today's youth will be more susceptible to a number of serious, life-threatening illnesses earlier in life, including diabetes.
The increase in overweight children comes at a time when modern-day conveniences and activities--like fast food, the Internet and video games--have contributed significantly to sedentary lifestyles, a trend that is becoming more and more common among today's youth.
Estimates of the number of overweight and obese children and adolescents in the U.S. vary. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that 13 percent of children and 14 percent of adolescents are affected by obesity--triple the adolescent rate since 1980. A 1999 article in American Family Physician estimates that the numbers fall between 25 percent and 30 percent of children and adolescents. The increase extends across racial and social groups.
Now, childhood obesity experts like Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, an associate dean and program director at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, are trying to determine the cause for the sharp rise in overweight children. "We're trying to figure out how much of the problem is food intake and how much is the result of little to no physical activity," says Dr. Kumanyika. "The social trends affecting children are definitely in favor of overeating. The impact of eating portions that are twice as big as they were 10 years ago is tremendous."
Obesity is a risk factor for a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, and doctors are concerned that the condition accounts for the dramatic rise in childhood diabetes. Type 2 diabetes has reached epidemic proportions, particularly among African-American and Hispanic children living in poverty, according to the Children's Health Fund.
The good news is that parents and other caregivers can have a profound influence on children by serving as role models and helping to establish healthy eating habits. More often than not, bad eating habits and sedentary behaviors are established during childhood.
"Children need good role models when it comes to healthy living and healthy eating," says Greg McCollum, a personal trainer in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. "If parents eat well routinely, their children will learn to eat well. One way parents can do this is to set up routines, like cooking dinner with their children to help explain the difference between good and bad foods."
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends the following tips to help parents raise children who eat nutritiously and are physically active:
Infancy: Breastfeed infants for the first four to six months of life. While the benefits are still being studied, doctors say breastfeeding helps, among other things, reduce the risk of obesity. "Infants have a preference for sweet and salty tastes and concern has been expressed that early introduction of sweetened beverages and high-fat/sweet foods to infants may be important contributors to childhood obesity," according to "Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance," a report from the Institute of Medicine. …