Is your kid junking up on cupcakes
at school, grabbing fried chicken fingers for
dinner, and spending too much time playing computer
You might think there's little you can do at
this point to positively influence your school-aged
child's health habits. But you'd be sadly mistaken.
"It's never too late to teach about healthy
eating and good exercise. That -- regardless
of a child's weight -- should be part of the
day-to-day practice," said Dr. Sandra Braganza,
a social pediatrician at Montefiore Medical
Center in New York City.
The goal doesn't necessarily have to be weight
loss, added Braganza, who counsels many overweight
children in her pediatrics practice. "The
goal can really be to eat healthier and increase
your exercise. And those have long-term benefits
for a child and the family."
Childhood obesity is at an all-time high in
the United States. Currently, 16 percent of
children and teens aged 6 to 19 are considered
overweight, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention reports.
Excess weight puts kids at risk for serious
health complications such as diabetes, hypertension
and heart disease. What's more, according to
the National Institute of Environmental Health
Sciences, recent studies show that new cases
of asthma are 1.5 to two times more likely among
It's important to teach healthy behaviors in
childhood, says the American Obesity Association,
because altering one's health habits becomes
more difficult as people age. Families and schools
can play a vital role in encouraging good nutrition
and physical activity -- behaviors that can
help prevent childhood obesity.
In fact, schools, in accordance with a 2004
federal law, must have a "wellness policy"
before the start of the 2006-2007 academic year.
Any school district that receives U.S. Department
of Agriculture funding for school breakfast
or lunch programs must establish goals for nutrition
education, physical activity and other school
activities designed to promote student wellness,
the law stipulates. Parents and students also
must participate in setting these new policies.
The law gives schools plenty of leeway in establishing
policies that reflect their own community's
"It's local choice, but they've got to
address these issues," explained Julia
Graham Lear, director of the Center for Health
and Health Care in the Schools at the George
Washington University School of Public Health
and Health Services and the Graduate School
of Education and Human Development, in Washington,
"The first thing parents can do is make
sure that their school district or their school
is on top of this. If you have elected school
boards and you have a school board member, give
them a call," she said. "Or give the
superintendent's office a call."
Parents can make a difference at home, too.
One way is to make healthy eating a family affair,
Braganza suggested. For example, don't keep
juice in the refrigerator if one child is not
allowed to drink it. "That is a very cruel
thing to do and a very difficult thing to do
for the child who is being prohibited from drinking
the juice," she said.
Instead of having cheesy, buttery mashed potatoes
on the dinner table, serve up grilled vegetables
that everyone can enjoy, she suggested. And
don't prepare a separate meal of fried chicken
fingers for the kids. Have them eat the same
grilled chicken that the adults are eating.
Experts at the Nemours Foundation also recommend:
Keeping lots of fruits and vegetables on
hand; the goal is five servings a day. Other
nutritious snacks include yogurt, peanut butter
and celery, and whole-grain crackers and cheese.
Serving lean meats and other healthful sources
of protein, including eggs and nuts.
Limiting fat consumption by avoiding fried
foods. Opt, instead, for healthier cooking
methods, such as broiling, grilling or roasting.
Limiting sugary drinks, such as soda and
fruit-flavored drinks. Instead, serve water
To sneak more exercise into the day without
making it a chore, try riding bikes or going
to the park as a family, Braganza said. Or set
up a weekly date for your child and some friends
to go bike riding together.
"Just like an adult, it's easier to exercise
when you have a person with you," she noted.
"I think children can benefit from a buddy
system like that."