Newswise — For any effort against childhood obesity to succeed, parents must also take responsibility for ensuring that their child develops proper eating habits. As American children return to the classroom this fall, a dietician and researcher at the University of Arkansas offers some simple tips for taking charge of children's nutrition both at home and at school.
Studies have shown that nearly one in six American children is overweight or obese. These numbers are increasing, and at a faster rate than researchers had previously expected, says Marjorie Fitch-Hilgenberg of the U of A.
Concerned by this trend, many schools across the country have begun to take action, through programs such as Body Mass Index initiatives and revamped school lunch offerings. Although these measures are proving helpful, the influence of the school extends only so far, Fitch Heigenberg said.
"Obesity in children really increased in national attention when schools began measuring children's body mass index," said Fitch-Hilgenberg. "However, many parents became quite upset with the program because they felt it was a private matter or didn't want their child to be labeled 'fat.'"
Still, results from the BMI assessments confirmed the fact that too many of the country's children are significantly overweight and caused many schools to reassess the food children eat during the school day.
Cafeteria meals served through the National School Lunch Program, which is administered by the USDA, are required to meet certain dietary guidelines regarding the number of calories they contain, percentage of fat and availability of vitamins and minerals. However, prepared school lunches now face competition from an array of fast foods and processed snacks that are available within the school as alternatives to school-provided meals. As children consume more of these alternative foods, their consumption of calories, fat, sugar and salt increases, while nutrient consumption decreases.
In a 2001 letter addressed to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Shirley Watkins, undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer services noted that "the availability of these foods sold in competition with school meals jeopardizes the nutritional effectiveness of the programs and may be a contributor to the tend of unhealthy eating practices among children." In response, many states have begun passing legislation limiting the availability of "junk foods" in schools.
"Here in Arkansas," Fitch-Hilgenberg notes, "we are the only state to pass a law prohibiting vending machines in elementary schools. Several other states also have similar legislation limiting the types and sizes of snacks that can be sold in school vending machines and the hours that the machines can be accessible to students."
While the school systems' responses are excellent steps toward combating the problem of childhood obesity, Fitch-Hilgenberg is quick to point out that the schools can't do it alone. "Parents ultimately have to take responsibility for their children's eating habits," she said. She recommends a four-step approach:
First, visit your child's school. "As parents, one of the simplest, yet most important things we can do regarding our children's nutrition is to be knowledgeable about the foods they're eating," she said. Fitch-Hilgenberg recommends that parents visit their child's cafeteria during lunch to see the types of foods that are being offered and the number of choices children have. Too many options sometimes can be overwhelming to a child, and he or she will tend to choose items that they are comfortable with, regardless of whether or not they are the best for them.
"Give a child the choice of french fries or steamed broccoli, and you can be pretty sure which one will go first," she says. By educating themselves about the types of foods their child is eating at school, parents will be better equipped to help their child learn to make appropriate choices.
Second, Fitch-Hilgenberg recommends dining together. The modern mentality of throwing dinner together and eating it in a hurry in front of the television is a major factor in our overall unhealthy lifestyles, Fitch-Hilgenberg observed. "When we cook and eat our dinners in a hurry, we don't tend to pay as much attention to what we're eating. We need to make dining an experience again. When the whole family gathers at the table, not only do we eat slower, and, therefore, less, but we provide an important family bonding time, as well."
Third, get moving. The family that plays together, stays together—and they also tend to stay slimmer together. Instead of sitting in front of the television after dinner, Fitch-Hilgenberg advises parents to get their children outside after meals. "Children need exercise," she said. "And if they don't get enough, not only will they gain weight, they may also get hyper from all that unspent energy and have trouble concentrating." A walk through the neighborhood or a light game of Frisbee are simple activities Fitch-Hilgenberg recommends that burn calories without being too stressful on the child or on the parent.
Finally, practice variety and moderation. "You can talk about balance. You can talk about adequacy of nutrients. You can talk about cutting calories, but if you practice variety and moderation, all of these other things tend to fall into place," Fitch-Hilgenberg said.
The American diet has become a landscape of super-sized foods, most of which tend to be white or brown. Simply practicing portion control and incorporating more color into a child's diet can go a long way towards improving his or her health and nutrition and avoiding obesity. Fitch-Hilgenberg urges parents to teach their child to think of his or her plate as a rainbow and to fill it with fruits and vegetables in an array of colors.
Snacking on nutritious foods is another good way for children to incorporate more variety into their diet. "Children need to be refueled constantly because of their energy level, so they need to snack a lot," she noted. "Snacks can be good or bad, depending on what you serve. There's nothing wrong with some cookies or a small bag of chips, occasionally, but too often these foods become mainstays in our diet, adding calories but little nutrition."
She recommends keeping fruits and vegetables in snack-sized portions handy for children to eat throughout the day. "Let the children get involved in the preparation of their own snacks. This is a great way to start allowing them to be a part of their nutritional decision-making, while still being able to guide them toward correct choices," she said.
The problem of obesity represents one of the most significant threats to the health of Americans today. Now, as more and more of America's children begin to be affected, swift action must be taken to combat this problem, before it gets even worse. As Fitch-Hilgenberg said: "The epidemic of obesity is here—we're getting larger, faster than anticipated. However, it can be stopped, and childhood is a good place to stop it."