Fighting childhood obesity

November 07, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Families must work together to combat childhood obesity - a growing epidemic that experts boil down to two primary factors: Unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise.

"We're looking down the wrong end of a rifle on this thing. This entire country has got to recognize that we've got a serious problem facing us," says clinical psychologist Gerard Musante, founder of the residential weight loss facility Structure House in North Carolina. Musante, who pioneered the behavioral change approach to weight loss while on the faculty of Duke University Medical Center, recently testified at a Senate hearing about the problem of obesity in America.

Childhood obesity has been linked to such serious long-term health problems as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. And overweight children often suffer from low self-esteem and other psychological problems due to their weight, experts say.


"Research shows that people perceive overweight individuals as less desirable," says licensed psychologist and counselor Lauren C. Solotar of The May Institute in Massachusetts, a nonprofit organization that serves people with needs ranging from developmental disabilities to mental health concerns.

"I'm a firm believer that you have to address this problem with children. You can't ignore it," Solotar says.

But yelling, hurtful comments about kids' weight and rigid, dictatorial diet and exercise demands are not effective ways to address the problem.

"I think there's a way to talk to kids without harming their self-esteem," Solotar says. "Frame it in a very positive way - let them know that everyone has something they need to improve. Frame it as a health issue. Be honest. And praise (overweight children) for their positive attributes and abilities."

A growing number of children have weight problems, in part, because they eat the wrong foods for the wrong reasons, Musante says. Kids today eat fewer fruits and vegetables and more fast, processed foods and sodas because those are the foods that are easiest for busy working parents to provide, he says.

Adults often model poor dietary and exercise habits for their kids.

"A lot of kids eat for a lot of reasons other than hunger - for comfort, out of boredom," says child obesity authority Kay Stearns Bruening, assistant professor of nutrition at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. She attributes increased childhood obesity to such environmental factors as powerful fast food marketing campaigns, vending machine items and other competing, less nutritious foods in schools, less gym time at school and attractive sedentary activities such as computer gaming.

"Kids are less active than they used to be," says Bruening, who recently received a grant from the New York State Attorney General's Office for the implementation of a family-based child obesity intervention program in Syracuse. "Parents should encourage as much physical activity as possible."

Participation in organized sports and health club memberships can help keep kids trim - but those aren't viable options for all families. It doesn't cost a thing, however, to take family walks after dinner, rake leaves in the back yard or go sledding together, Bruening says.

Simple alternatives to daily routines - taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther from the entrance to the grocery store - can add up to a healthier lifestyle, Solotar says.

It's also important to work together as a family to develop a diet that is both healthy and appealing to children, say Bruening and Solotar.

"We don't want to be too controlling. It's pretty clear that backfires," Bruening says.

Instead of telling kids what not to eat or what activity to avoid, the experts suggest that parents make changes if necessary:

  • Let overweight kids know that you love them unconditionally - and will do anything you can to help them get healthier.

  • Offer healthy food choices - and praise kids for making the right choice.

  • Provide opportunities for physical fitness - and praise kids for making the effort to get fit.

  • Limit time in front of the TV and on the computer.

  • Show children how to eat well and exercise by doing it with them.

  • Refrain from withdrawing all unhealthy snacks - just offer them less often.

  • Reduce portion sizes. Use smaller plates so they look fuller.

  • Keep high-calories foods in the back of the cabinet.

  • Avoid automatically putting condiments on the table with meals.

  • Cut back on visits to fast food restaurants.

  • Encourage children to eat slower and stop eating when they're full.

"Forget the clean-your-plate idea. We need to let go of that," Bruening says.

Musante urges parents, children, school and government officials and representatives of the restaurant and bottling industries to come together to fight the obesity trend.

It's a battle that starts at home.

"It's imperative that parents realize that the key to the child's weight loss and happiness is in their hands," Musante says. "There are a great many things we can do to be successful."

The Herald-Mail Articles