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Nutrition for Children and Teenagers

The percentage of overweight children, ages six to seventeen years, has doubled in the United States since 1968. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted from 1988 to 1994 by the National Center for Health Statistics found that one in five children in the United States was overweight. Studies also show that almost 70 percent of overweight kids ages ten to thirteen will be overweight or obese as adults.

ALERT! An increasing number of teenagers are also overweight, and, if no intervention is made, approximately 80 percent of them will stay overweight or become obese as adults.

Children and teens will probably experience psychological and emotional fallout from being overweight as youngsters. They may struggle with self-esteem, and they often become the object of teasing from other children. Overweight children are also put at risk for health problems. Studies show that overweight children tend to have higher levels of blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood fats.

Children can become overweight for a variety of reasons. The most common are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination. In rare cases, a medical problem can cause a child to become overweight.

Assessing whether a child's weight puts him or her in an overweight category can be difficult, because children grow in erratic spurts. If you feel your child or teen may be overweight, consult your family physician, Your doctor may use growth charts to determine if there is a problem.

Handling an Overweight Child
Children and teens should never be placed on a calorie-restricted diet to lose weight unless they are under the strict supervision of a doctor for medical reasons. Limiting what children or teens eat can be harmful to their health and can interfere with proper growth and development. It can also be psychologically stressful for a child. Helping the child to adopt healthy eating and exercise habits is more important than pounds lost. Behavior modification strategies have shown considerable success in effecting long-term weight loss. The best programs incorporate plenty of physical activity and healthy eating, including slowing the rate of eating, limiting the time and place of eating, and teaching problem-solving through exercises. The most effective treatments also involve parents.

To help your child achieve a healthy weight, try the following techniques:

  • Seek the advice of a health-care professional, such as a registered dietitian or doctor. Keep in mind that adult approaches to weight loss are not fit for children.
  • Give your children support, acceptance, and encouragement, no matter what their weight, and talk to them about their feelings. This will help them carry a positive self-image, making weight loss more achievable.
  • Starting in early childhood, teach children proper nutrition, selection of healthy low-fat snacks, and the importance of physical activity.
  • Monitor the time they spend watching television or sitting at a computer.
  • Make it a point to include good nutrition, and make exercise a family affair. Plan lower-fat meals for the entire family, have more nutritious snacks in the house, and plan family activities. This will help the child feel part of the family instead of isolated (not to mention that the whole family will benefit!).
  • Beware of using food as a reward for a certain accomplishment, as a substitute for affection, or as a compensation for a disappointment. Use other avenues as rewards.
  • Make sure your child's portions are a child's (as opposed to an adult's) size. Use smaller plates for children so you or the child is not tempted to fill up a large plate.
  • Explain to children how to recognize when their body tells them that they are hungry or full.
  • Stock your kitchen with low-fat and low-calorie snack foods so they are available when the child is hungry. Be wary of bringing high-fat, high-calorie foods into the house and having them within sight of the child.
ALERT! Although limiting fat intake may help prevent excess weight gain in children, it is not recommended to restrict fat intake in children who are younger than two.
  • Instead of heavy snacking, make meals their primary source of calories.
  • Do not encourage continued eating or cleaning their plates when children are truly no longer hungry.
  • Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad." Instead, help your child to learn how to fit all types of food into a healthy eating pattern, and teach them how to eat foods in moderation. Even if your child has a few pounds to lose, he or she can still eat foods such as sweets in moderation. What counts is their diet as a whole.
  • Make a family rule that eating is only allowed in the kitchen or dining room to keep kids from snacking on high-calorie foods while watching television. Children will most likely eat less with this rule in place.

Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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