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Tip the Scales in Your Child's Favor

Sure, the kids are carrying a few extra pounds -- OK, maybe more than a few -- but how big a deal could that be?

It could be today's greatest threat to public health.

"We may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents," U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, M.D., recently told a Senate committee.

Obesity is poised to pass tobacco as America's leading preventable killer, and it's a growing epidemic among children. Over the past 20 years, the proportion of overweight children doubled among 6- to 11-year-olds and tripled among adolescents 12 to 19. One in seven kids -- more than 9 million children -- are overweight, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Their younger siblings aren't far behind. Ten percent of 2- to 5-year-olds weigh too much.

"We called the SARS outbreak an epidemic and it affected 500 people," says William Dietz, M.D., director of the CDC's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. "This affects millions of children and adults, more people than HIV-AIDS does."

Excess childhood weight is placing "an unprecedented burden" on children's health, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. It's triggering a host of dangerous health problems once seen only in adults.

About 10 years ago, for instance, doctors began noticing that overweight children were developing type 2 diabetes -- once called adult-onset diabetes -- at ages earlier than ever before. Those children will also develop diabetes' serious and even life-threatening complications (kidney failure, heart disease, stroke and blindness) at much earlier ages.

Being overweight isn't a phase most kids outgrow, either. Overweight adolescents have a 50 percent chance of becoming overweight adults.

"The good news is that there is still time to reverse this dangerous trend in our children's lives," Dr. Carmona says. But to do that, we need to understand why so many children weigh too much.

Genes play a role for some children, but that's not new. The world kids live in is new in many ways, though. Among the factors:

  • More sedentary lifestyles focused on television and video games

  • Less free play time for young children

  • Less physical education in schools

  • Eating more meals outside the home, especially fast food

  • Larger portion sizes

  • Too much fat and sugar

  • Unfounded beliefs about which foods and beverages are or are not healthful

"More than 40 percent of a family's food budget is spent on food consumed outside of the home," Dr. Dietz says. "Soft drinks and 10 percent juice drinks account for more than 10 percent of adolescents' caloric intake. Food is everywhere....Meanwhile, less than a third of children who live within a mile of their schools walk there."

The average child spends 5-1/2 hours a day using TV, video games, computers and the Internet, the Kaiser Family Foundation says.

What you can do

  • Limit TV to 30 minutes a day and allow computer time only for homework.

  • Make time for 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Help your children find activities they enjoy. School, church and civic groups may be places to look for team sports.

  • Set a good example for your children by being active yourself and by eating healthful food.

  • For the most part, limit your children's beverages to milk and water. Any fruit juice offered should be 100 percent juice. Children under 12 should have no more than 4 ounces a day; teens, no more than 8 ounces a day.

  • Try to eat at least two meals a day as a family. Studies show that children who eat with their families tend to be thinner and eat healthier meals.

  • Avoid fast foods. They are high in fat, sugar, salt and calories.

  • Don't use food as a bribe or reward.