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Children's Health

Poor Eating Habits Run in the Family

When it comes to food, kids tend to mimick their folks. But obesity is a growing problem, and parents need to stress healthy choices.


If feeding our children is a metaphor for parenthood, we're in crisis mode, caught in a battle over what's good for our children, what's manageable within busy schedules and what plain ol' tastes good.

Indulged with cookies, coddled with fruit rolls, pacified with Happy Meals, quieted with juice, children are being overfed. The quick fix now could spell disaster later. While there is disagreement on how fat is fat, there's no doubt that weight problems are affecting younger and younger children. With a quarter of all children at risk for health problems and new research saying 54% of adults are overweight, the National Institutes of Health has just formulated the nation's first weight guidelines and recently kicked off a campaign to help people shed pounds.

The younger the child with excess weight, the greater the chance the weight will stay with him into adulthood, where consumption-related diseases such as coronary vascular disease, diabetes and some cancers have been rising for 30 years. Obesity-related diseases kill 300,000 Americans a year.

It is inescapable that parents share a, well, healthy portion of the blame: For unknown reasons, the generation having children today left home without learning to cook or manage food. These adults have poor eating habits, and the ways they have developed to cope with hectic lifestyles--eating out and eating on the run--can be unhealthy for their children.

"The traditions of eating have just disintegrated," laments Ellyn Satter, a Madison, Wis., dietitian-therapist who wrote "How to Get Your Kid to Eat . . . but Not Too Much."

"Family meals are starting to disintegrate, and kids are on their own to feed themselves," she says.

It's not just the both-parents-work frenzy, says Satter. With the medical community's constant nutrition cautions, "the bar has gotten so high in getting a meal on the table--'you can't eat this,' 'you have to have that.' The list gets so long that when you sit down and plan . . . it's easier to go through the drive-in."

Then there's this paradox: Many places that cater to children, such as museums, zoos and theaters, cater in every way except by offering healthful food--not that kids want to eat healthful food anyway.

Children choose foods they prefer, and their tastes--as well as their sedentary lifestyles--are heavily influenced by those of their parents, researchers say. It doesn't help that by the time they reach age 17, they will have sat through the equivalent of three years of television and untold amounts of advertising for high-fat foods.

Besides poor eating habits, the main culprit for the fat problem appears to be reduced physical activity. Recreation programs may be hot, but kids drop out in adolescence. In the 1960s, physical education was mandatory in schools; in 1995, only 25% of high schools required it. In that period, the prevalence of overweight children more than doubled, growing to 11% from less than 5% in 1963. An additional 14% of children are on the edge of being overweight.

Oddly, the trend coincides with parents' growing interest in health clubs and health foods--even while they munch on snack foods.

"It doesn't make sense," says Ari A. Brown, a Reisterstown, Md., pediatrician. "I think it's that we are trying to do so many things and never achieve any of our goals."

Even if a single reason were pinned down, there's still another major question: How do you get people--parents and children--to do the right thing?

"We know what to recommend," says Van S. Hubbard, director of the National Institutes of Health's division of nutritional research, "but are there better ways of getting people to do it?"

Kids know they need more fruit and vegetables and less fat, studies show--but they don't reach for the right foods, either at home or in restaurants. Neither do their parents. Nothing reveals the mixed messages adults send more than the National Restaurant Assn.'s surveys of what consumers say they want and what they buy: More than 80% say they consider health when they order, but only about one-third actually buy healthful selections.

The truth is, when eating out, most people ignore any pretense of eating right.

Such indulgence was fine as long as restaurants were reserved for special occasions. But now they are a time-management tool. The average family eats out more than four times a week.

Eating at restaurants doesn't have to be unhealthy. There are more choices than ever, and more restaurants willing to serve half-portions of regular-menu items to children.

Choice is key to helping children develop healthy eating habits.

Satter's guiding principle, cited by nutritionists everywhere, is this:

It is the parents' job to present their children with a variety of healthful foods and to present new foods at every opportunity, whether at home or in a restaurant. It is the child who decides what and how much to eat. Teach them to eat like gourmets, Satter advises, so they will savor good food prepared in a variety of ways.

In the end, she says, kids are the best regulators of their own food.

Attempts to control what they eat may have the opposite effect, Pennsylvania State University professors noted in a 1998 survey of research on child-eating patterns. Studies show that children's preferences for certain foods such as sweets increase when they are used as rewards, and that a high degree of parental control hurts the child's ability to develop self-control.

Treating weight problems is extraordinarily difficult: The more overweight children grow, the more difficult it is for them to keep up with physical activity, the more embarrassing it is to work out in the gym and the more self-conscious about teasing they become. They lose self-esteem, friends, everything but appetite.

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