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Health and Nutrition : EATING RIGHT : Why Are My Children Fat?


Dear Eating Right: My kids play a lot of video and computer games and they watch a fair amount of television. But I've been hearing that children who watch television are fatter than kids who don't. Should I change my children's diets to offset the time they spend at these activities?

JIM BAXTER, Pasadena

Dear Jim: It's not your kids' diet, it's the TV. Obesity is a disease with multiple causes, including family history and diet, but lack of activity is a major factor that cannot be over-stressed. In fact, the link between the rise in childhood and adolescent obesity in this country and increased television watching may be even stronger than once suspected, according to a recently published study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn.

Obviously, if your children are watching television or playing video games, they are spending less time in calorie-burning activities. Such sedentary situations also promote snacking--especially on foods that are high in sugar and fat. (It has also been suggested that television has a hypnotic effect on the body, decreasing metabolic rate.)

However, limiting the number of calories your child receives or cutting back on nutritious snacks shouldn't be the goal, says Mary Abbott Hess, a registered dietitian and new president of the American Dietetic Assn. The best approach to avoiding obesity in your children, she says, is simply to turn off the TV.

In her new book, "A Healthy Head Start: A Worry-free Guide to Feeding Young Children" (Henry Holt & Co. Inc.: $24.95), she says that growing children need snacks--the extra calories are important for physical development. But she stresses that you should supervise what your children eat between meals.

Make sure that your children eat snacks at a designated time and place--no sooner than two hours before or after a main meal. She suggests that you offer nutrient-dense snacks (not treats) to your children, including fresh, canned or dried fruit, whole-grain cereals, popcorn and graham crackers, which can be a vital source of vitamins and minerals.

The important thing to remember is that the snacks contribute to your child's total daily calorie needs, and therefore ought to include foods from each of the Four Food Groups (see chart). Snacks need to satisfy hunger without keeping your child from eating at regular mealtimes. Above all, says Hess, avoid "particularly sedentary activities," which are counterproductive to good nutrition and physical development. "The amount of isolation and inactivity that are encouraged by television watching is really not in a child's best interest," she says.

Hess' opinion is based on research from Dr. Steven L. Gortmaker and his colleagues at Harvard School of Public Health and Tufts New England Medical Center who a few years ago observed that adolescents viewing one hour of television daily had a 2% increased incidence of obesity. Now, they report that a child who already is obese has a 6% less chance of losing the extra weight for each hour of "inactivity" he or she spends each day. These habits were also responsible for raising the numbers of newly obese children.

"The results of this study are particularly significant because television viewing or 'inactivity' was shown to be related to both incidence and remission of obesity--independent of a wide variety of other social and demographic variables," Gortmaker says.

Kids like these Bean Tortilla Roll-ups--and they make a wholesome alternative to junk food.


1 tablespoon oil

1/4 cup finely chopped green onions

1/4 cup finely diced tomato

2 cups cooked kidney or pinto beans, or 1 (15-ounce) can, drained and rinsed

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup tomato juice or tomato sauce

Dash sugar

6 flour tortillas, heated

3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Heat oil in medium skillet. Add green onions and cook over medium heat until tender, about 2 minutes. Add tomato and cook 1 minute. Add beans and cook, stirring and mashing, until mixture resembles coarse puree. Stir in coriander and cumin. Gradually add tomato juice and cook over low heat until mixture is thick, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in sugar. Remove from heat and set aside.

To assemble, place tortilla on plate. Spread 2 tablespoons bean mixture on 1 side. Sprinkle with 2 1/2 tablespoons cheese and roll up tightly. (Tortillas can be eaten at room temperature or heated in oven at 350 degrees 10 to 15 minutes.) Makes 6 servings.

Note: For added nutrition, serve with shredded romaine lettuce.

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