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Weight Matters: Healthy Eating Strategies for Kids

Weight Matters: Healthy Eating Strategies for Kids

It’s almost time to start fretting again about what to put in kid’s lunch boxes. But while you’re at Costco loading up on snacks and drinks, your biggest challenge won’t be getting it all into your car. It will be how to get your kids to eat the healthy stuff you pack and skip the trip to the vending machine.

Many adolescents and teenagers typically have unhealthy eating habits—some gravitate toward high-fat and sugary junk food, while others become restrictive, cutting calories and forgoing foods, such as meat or dairy. Experts now suggest that both kinds of eating behaviors can lead to overweight and obesity.

Childhood Obesity in the United States may be reaching epidemic proportions, but there’s a whole spectrum of weight-related problems, explains Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a children’s health and nutrition expert at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and author of I’m, Like So Fat! (The Guilford Press, 2005). “There are real concerns about obesity, but also a need to be more concerned with other weight-related problems that include body dissatisfaction, unhealthy weight control, excess or inadequate exercise and erratic eating behaviors,” she says.

Studies have shown that many adolescents and teens are concerned about their appearance and weight and have some degree of body dissatisfaction. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org) reports that about one in two teenage girls and one in four teenage boys have tried dieting to change their body shape.

Neumark-Sztainer, a Costco member, has been doing a long-term study involving 2,500 adolescents, and the first five years of tracking data have shown that kids who diet have a greater risk of disordered eating behaviors and obesity.

Dieting or restrictive eating behaviors can affect puberty, growth and long-term health. They also can lead to nutritional deficiencies, such as calcium and iron, which are essential for growth in adolescents and teens. And they can cause menstrual irregularities, delayed onset of puberty, slowed or diminished growth, plus osteopenia (low bone-mineral density) and osteoporosis (loss of bone mass).

Kids, even heavier ones, are still growing and have important nutritional needs, explains Costco member Rachel Keaschuk, a psychologist with the Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health in Edmonton, Alberta. “For most children, the goal should be to diet but rather to eat to improve their nutrition.”

And because kids are growing, Keaschuk suggests that the focus should be on “weight maintenance rather than weight loss.” Keeping weight stable while still growing means a lower body mass index over time.

So what can parents do? Encourage healthy eating and a positive self-image, which starts by fostering the same behavior and attitude in yourself. Here’s how you can help.

Be a good role model. Do you have a healthy body image? Children learn what to value and how to value their bodies from the role models they see around them. If parents are constantly putting down their own bodies, then kids will do the same,” says Keaschuk.

Talk up physical activity. Focus on the benefits of exercise, including more energy, better focus (kids who are more physically active tend to do better academically), improved mood and higher self-esteem.

Don’t narrate, participate. Don’t sit on the sidelines with a cup of coffee—try kicking around the soccer ball with your kids. “Role-model that healthy eating and active living are important. Make it a priority as a parent and children will emulate that,” says Keaschuk.

Create a healthy home environment. Stock whole-grain crackers, low-fat dairy, and fruits and vegetables instead of cookies and chips. Limit TV and computer time. Make physical activity a norm—like a family walk or bike ride.

Eat together more often. People may take it for granted, but family meals definitely promote healthy eating. “Our research consistently shows that there are far better dietary outcomes and far better dietary outcomes and fewer eating-related behaviors,” says Neumark-Sztainer. Besides, she says, when you eat together, you can promote healthy choices and spot unhealthy eating behaviors.

Make healthy living a family affair. “Encourage healthy eating and active living for all family members, regardless of weight status”, says Keaschuk. “Everyone, regardless of weight, can make changes to be healthier and benefit from these changes.”

By Angela Pirisi

August 2010 Costco Connection

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