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Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue

Healthy kids start with a healthy diet


01/23/2008 - As many parents can attest, a big problem facing today's youth is the epidemic of obesity. Particularly in industrialized nations, the number of obese children continues to rise, as more kids are living unhealthy and sedentary lives.

When it comes to childhood obesity, the numbers don't lie. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16 percent of young people (ages 6 to 19) are overweight or obese. That translates to roughly 9 million kids across the country who are overweight or obese. In addition, the CDC reports indicate that another 15 percent of children are at risk of becoming overweight, meaning roughly 30 percent of American children are either overweight or obese, or at serious risk of becoming overweight.

Those numbers, while startling enough on their own, are even more so when considering the effect overweight or obese youths are having on the American healthcare system. While hospital costs for children used to be associated with a broken bone here or there as a result of physical activity, a large portion of the youth-related hospital costs nowadays are the result of obesity. In a 2005 report, the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit organization started to provide unbiased science-based advice on science, medicine and health, noted that youth-obesity-associated hosptial costs from 1979 to 1981 were $35 million. Twenty years later, the same report notes, those costs had more than tripled to $127 million.

Perhaps most damaging is the likelihood many of these children will be overweight or obese when they grow up. The United States Department of Health and Human Services reports that overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese as adults. For parents of overweight or obese children, this is certainly cause for concern. In addition to the physical consequences of being overweight or obese, both children and adults who are obese often pay a big price socially as well. For concerned parents, the good news is that many of the following risk factors are entirely within a parent's, and even a child's, control.

• Diet: What a child eats has a major impact on his or her chances of being overweight or obese. Regardless of how active a child is, a poor diet can be very damaging. Foods and beverages that are high in sugar and calories, such as soft drinks and candies, lead to weight gain. Regular consumption of fast foods and baked goods, both of which are high in calories, is also detrimental to a child's health. Snacks, unless they're healthy, moderately-proportioned snacks such as fruit, are also typically loaded with calories.

• Sedentary lifestyle: As technology has advanced, the rate of childhood obesity has risen. While there may or may not be a direct correlation between the two, the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that technological advancements enable suggests there certainly is a correlation. Time kids are now spending playing video games or watching more and more television is time that kids used to spend outdoors playing and exercising. In general, parents should encourage leisure activities that involve exercise, whether that exercise is structured or not. Parents who live in households where both parents work should consider placing younger children in afterschool programs where video games and television are not available. Older kids should be encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities that promote exercise.

• Genetics: The genetic risk factor for obesity is arguably the hardest to control. Children who come from a family of overweight people might be genetically predisposed to putting on extra pounds. In such families, diet and exercise need to be emphasized even more than normal, and parents, if overweight or obsese, should explore losing weight themselves in an effort to provide a better example to children.

• Psychology: Nearly everyone has heard the term "comfort food." Coping with emotional problems, stress or even just a rough day at the office by eating is unhealthy. If kids have a rough day at school, it can be tempting to take them out for pizza or ice cream. However, this sets a dangerous psychological precedent, one that could turn food into a crutch for kids during difficult times. This can be an especially unhealthy habit to adopt during the difficult period of adolescence. In lieu of using food as a means of coping, consider taking kids on a hike or with you to the gym. Exercise is known to relieve stress, and if kids associate exercise with relieving stress at an early age, they're more likely to make exercise a part of their daily lives.

While technology continues to make it easier for children to become overweight or obese, parents need to recognize the longterm results of being overweight or obese, and do what's necessary to help their children avoid the difficult road that awaits if certain lifestyle choices aren't changed.

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