No Single Food to Blame
America's kids are tipping the scales in the wrong direction. Children's obesity levels have doubled in the past 30 years and are at an all-time high, with one in four kids being overweight, a cause for concern among nutrition and health professionals who say youngsters may be setting themselves up for a myriad of future health problems.
What's behind kids packing on the pounds? Is it simply too much fast food, soft drinks and snacks? Or is there more to the fitness equation?
"What a child eats is certainly important, but the problem isn't only about how to make your kids eat more green beans, broccoli and whole grain bread. The growing problem of overweight kids is much more than a food issue; it's a lifestyle issue for the child and the entire family," explained Susan L. Johnson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Colorado's Center for Human Nutrition in Denver.
While food is one part of the fitness equation, physical activity is an equally important component. Johnson explains that too many children are simply not active. "We have kids nine, 10 and 11 years old leading very sedentary lifestyles. Children need encouragement to get up from in front of the television and computer screen and get involved in active play." This translates into parents turning off the screens and sending their children outdoors or to a safe place to play.
According to a recent national survey by the Annenburg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, children spend an average of 4.35 hours a day in front of a television or computer screen. If kids were physically active for even a quarter of that time, many overweight kids would be healthier and might trim down, notes Johnson.
"A significant part of children's weight problems is that they are not physically active so they are not burning up the energy they consume. A child can burn almost ten times more energy riding a bike than sitting in front of a television" says Johnson.
At The GoodLIFE Clinic at The Children's Hospital of Denver, Johnson and her colleagues counsel families with overweight children and make a special point to address the family's activity levels as well as their diet. To identify lifestyle issues facing the overweight child, she asks parents and children to consider several aspects of family life. These often include looking at eating patterns, including meals, snacks, portion sizes, and frequency of eating out. They also discuss physical activity routines--or lack thereof. Perhaps most important, they zero in on family communication and organization, which places the entire health and fitness picture in perspective.
"We believe that kids form lifelong habits by the time they are in their later teens. We are looking at a generation of children and families with significant health risks, so we must tackle the fitness issue now," she added.
Sugar - Is it a Dietary Villain
Sugar is not making our kids "fat." No matter how you look at weight gain in children or adults, the reality is that no single food causes someone to be overweight. "When a person gains weight, it is because too many calories overall are being consumed compared to the calories that are being utilized by daily activities," notes Johnson. "This leaves us with three choices: 1) eat less; 2) burn more; or 3) combine the two to change children's rate of weight gain."
"We don't want to create negative feelings about any food," said Johnson. "Kids need to eat well to fuel their growth and eating should be enjoyable. If a child is eating a nutritious diet based on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, they can still eat foods like candy and cookies in moderation. However, they should also have fun opportunities to be physically active so that parents don't have to worry about the occasional treats," said Johnson.
Avoid giving foods a negative or super-desirable aura, Johnson advised. Forbidding, as opposed to limiting foods, may only make them more desirable, encouraging a child to overeat that food when given the opportunity. Balance can be taught by keeping nutrient-dense foods (like fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and lean protein sources) readily available.
Fad diets that emphasize protein content while limiting carbohydrates have added to the questions surrounding kids' and adults' diets. Johnson notes that these diets are not appropriate for growing, healthy children. "Diets high in carbohydrates do not promote weight gain until they are consumed in amounts that exceed energy requirements," she noted. "The key is to strive for balance-the majority of carbohydrate should come from sources like fruits, vegetables and grain products."
Where is the simple carbohydrate in our diets coming from? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the majority of added sugar in our diets comes from soft drinks (33%), baked goods (14%), fruit drinks (10%), and a category defined as "other" (25%), which includes use of table sugar. Candy accounts for only 5% of sugar intake.
"Raising a healthy, fit child depends on the entire family working together to assure a nutritious diet, daily physical activity and good communication that makes healthful habits an enjoyable part of every day living," concludes Johnson.