Kids' weight problems a shared responsibility

April 19, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

There are a number of reasons why we worry about excess body weight and children. A major concern is health. The extra pounds make children candidates for what were once considered adult diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, elevated blood fats, weight-related asthma and arthritic joints.

Children's weight problems and health issues must be considered a shared responsibility. Parents and children are key, but a school board that trims physical education classes in an effort to boost test scores would bear part of the responsibility. So would builders and urban planners who distance schools from residential areas, yet fail to plan for sidewalks or a safe environment so that children can walk to and from school.

Parents' responsibilities

Food marketing strategies and the ready availability of calorie-dense foods are issues, but parents have the first responsibility. Parents' responsibilities include the following:

  • Choose and prepare food for regular meals and snacks. Children's stomachs are small, so they need to eat regularly. Supplemental snacks are important, but they need not be high in calories or fat.

  • Make eating times pleasant by setting aside time for meals together and limiting distractions. Turn off the radio or TV and let family members, including children, talk about their day.

  • Model healthful eating habits. Eat a variety of foods at meals and snacks, but avoid "grazing" on food or beverages. Children learn from parents' behaviors, so parents need to try to set a good example.

Involve children

Children also have a responsibility for eating competently. If parents can learn to provide healthful foods and allow children to choose from those foods, children typically learn to eat competently - to be responsible for how much they eat or whether they eat at all.

  • Don't make an issue of food or force children to clean their plate. If a child turns up his or her nose at broccoli, don't make an issue out of it. Wait a few days and offer it again, perhaps in a different form, such as raw broccoli florettes with a low-fat dip.

  • Involve children in meal preparation to help them learn about healthy foods. When time is short, quick-cook methods - stir-frying a meat and vegetable combination or grilling - can help families get dinner on the table more quickly than it takes to drive to a fast food restaurant. Foods prepared at home typically are lower in fat, sodium and sugar.

  • Take a walk or a bike ride after dinner to add healthful physical activity. Indoor games such "Twister" - enjoying a recent revival - or stretching to music also count as exercise.

  • Make it fun. For health, the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend 60 minutes of physical activity each day for children and 30 or more minutes most days for adults.

Choosing health-promoting foods and adding physical activity each day can help guide children and their families to a healthy weight and active, productive lives. Plotting a child's Body Mass Index on the appropriate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention growth chart (go to can alert parents to early signs that their child is gaining weight too fast. This can enable parents to help their child avoid developing weight problems by making small changes in their family's diet and physical activity habits.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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