Steps to Help Kids Develop Healthy Habits

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Father and Son; UW Health's Pediatric Fitness Offers Steps to Help Kids Develop Healthy HabitsMADISON – Parents may mean well when they say their child is just big-boned, but they may be denying a very real problem. Childhood obesity affects one out of every three children and the health complications can be serious, including high blood pressure, heart disease and early-onset diabetes.


According to Ellen Wald, MD, chair of UW Health's Department of Pediatrics, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health problems of our time.


"It is a challenging problem," she said. "The causes are multifactorial and in order to achieve success in addressing the issue, everyone has to work together – parents, pediatricians or family physicians, neighborhoods, schools and government."


Recognizing There is a Problem


An important first step is for parents to recognize that their child has a problem.


"Many parents don't recognize, or admit, that there is a problem," Dr. Wald said. "Sometimes it's because they are in denial, while other times, they're afraid of creating an eating disorder in their child if they pay too much attention."


But, it is critical to a child's health that parents recognize any weight issues. And paying attention to the problem is only going to help the child, not create more problems in the future.


The main tool in determining whether a child is overweight is the body mass index, or BMI. A pediatrician, family physician, or school nurse can determine a child's BMI.


"At every health maintenance visit, a child's weight and height are noted. The doctor or nurse can plot them on a BMI chart that will help identify whether the child is overweight," explained Dr. Wald.


Find your child's BMI: Boys | Girls


Even if there isn't a weight issue, parents play a key role in helping to maintain a healthy lifestyle for their family.


"Parents have to assume responsibility," said Dr. Wald. "They are the ones to do the grocery shopping and meal preparation. And they are important role models for their children."


Steps Towards Healthy Habits


There are a few simple steps that parents can take to help children develop healthy habits for life.


Regulate portion size


"Portion size is what really gets people into trouble," Dr. Wald commented. "If kids just had an ordinary portion size, even if it wasn't the most nutritious of foods, weight wouldn't be that big an issue."


The problem is that two or three times a serving size is commonly mistaken for a single serving. But there are some general guidelines for what a single serving actually looks like:

  • Fruits and veggies: a baseball
  • Cheese: approximately the size of 4 dice
  • Chicken or fish: a deck of cards

And, on a dinner plate filled with food, fruits and vegetables should occupy most of the plate. Protein, such as meat or fish, should be a smaller part.


"Portion size alone would really get kids back on track," Dr. Wald said.


Limit soda, fruit juices and sweetened drinks


These types of beverages have limited nutritional value and add a tremendous number of calories. Water, skim milk, or even Crystal Light should be the beverages of choice.


Keep sweets and junk food out of the house


"It's unrealistic to think kids can exercise self-control," said Dr. Wald. "Many adults can't, particularly when it comes to cookies and chips."


But Dr. Wald admits there's no reason to forego them altogether.


"If your family has ice cream, make it a special treat and go out to get it," she suggested.


By not keeping ice cream in the freezer, or cookies in the cupboard, there's no opportunity for kids or their parents to consume too much.


Plan activities


Go for a bicycle ride. Walk the dog. Do something as a family that gets everyone out of the house and enjoying some activity on a regular basis.




"We want children to enjoy eating," Dr. Wald said. "Find balance in foods that they enjoy and foods that are good for them."


It isn't necessary to prohibit a type of food, provided it is eaten in moderation and in the right portion size. So while the focus should be on fruits and vegetables along with lean meats and protein, a hamburger or slice of pizza is okay once in awhile.


Recognize cues


When sitting down to a meal eating, not television, should be a primary focus.


"We have to pay attention to our own body's cues. When we're distracted by television or computer games, it is too easy to overeat," commented Dr. Wald.


Parents can help children learn to become aware of their body's cues by eliminating distractions like television, and encouraging kids to eat slowly and stop when they feel full.


When it comes to creating and maintaining a healthy living environment, everyone – parents, grandparents, care givers – has a responsibility.


"It is a family's issue and requires the entire family to work to a solution," concluded Dr. Wald. "Kids are the most successful when their parents recognize their responsibility and play an active role."


Date Published: 09/16/2008

News tag(s):  pediatric fitnesschildrenschild nutrition

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