We've known for years that our kids are putting on too much weight, but we haven't done much about it.
Now, that "baby fat" we used to think was cute is hanging around into late childhood and beyond. A new California report indicates that one in three children is overweight or almost overweight, and national figures show that the percentage of kids who are too heavy has doubled in the past two decades.
An estimated 70% of these kids will become overweight adults, increasing their risk of heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.
We want to blame genetics, TV, video games or the Internet. But the bottom line is that kids just aren't getting good nutrition, enough exercise or positive food role models.
As adults, we are responsible for our children's health. The most important action we can take is to be a good example: Practice good family nutrition.
When preparing meals at home, have your kids help by reading the nutritional facts on every package that you use in preparing the meal. Try asking them questions. Have them add up the amount of calories and fat for the entire meal and compare it to what else they've eaten that day. If over the proper amount for the day, let them choose which food to eliminate.
Show your kids how important fruits and vegetables are by eating them yourself--with every meal. Try kiwis, berries, starfruit or papayas with breakfast.
Have salads at lunch and dinner, and put the kids in charge of making them. Children love to create, and using multiple colors and shapes will not only keep them happily occupied but also reinforce the importance of nutritional variety.
But be sure to give them the right ingredients. Try using dark leafy greens mixed with kale or Swiss chard and topped with broccoli or jicama. Go light on the dressings, and avoid those fried crunchy toppings.
Serve kid-sized food for snacks and school lunches. Try serving smaller sandwiches that combine protein with greens or sprouts on whole grain cocktail breads. Add a banana for a great any-time snack. These foods satisfy their nutritional needs and make healthy eating fun.
Dinner time is for many of us the heaviest meal of the day, and that in itself is a bad nutrition habit. Try eating lighter foods at dinner, with smaller portions. Dietary recommendations call for about 4 ounces of meat, poultry or fish per serving--that's about the size of a deck of cards. A serving of pasta should be about the size of a tennis ball. Serve vegetables with every dinner plate. Always eat together when possible, and finish your meal at least three hours before bedtime.
But kids need to hear about the importance of good nutrition from more than one source. To this end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a food guide pyramid for kids 2 to 6 years old. The department is working with schools to integrate the program in their curriculum and is offering consumers a 16-page booklet on the pyramid and other healthy eating information (free at http://www.usda.gov/cnpp or $5 from government printing office).
Although the basis of the food pyramid for kids is the same as for adults, it was designed for kids and stresses that a variety of foods should be eaten.
What the pyramid does not show is just how many calories should be consumed, because all kids are different and have different activity levels. But with the near-epidemic numbers of overweight kids, it's important to have basic guidelines.
The USDA's Recommended Energy Intakes for kids:
* 2- to 3-year-olds--1,300 calories a day.
* 4- to 6-year-olds--1,600 calories a day.
* 7-to 10-year-olds--2,000 calories a day.
Compare that to the average adult recommendation of about 2,200 calories a day and you can see that we have to intelligently scale down their portions. A double meat combo sandwich, fries and soda at a fast-food restaurant can easily top the daily requirements.
Kids are not going to start counting calories or grams of fat at age 2, nor should they, but they need to learn a sense of nutritional measurement.
The "kid" foods now on the supermarket shelves--especially those that combine meats, crackers, dressings and candy for convenience--can be misleading, providing only a couple of ounces of protein in more than 1,000 calories. In the store, restaurant or at home, adults must take advantage of every opportunity to read those nutritional labels with their children.
Even if your child isn't heavy now, it's important to establish good eating habits. Being overweight later in life is one of those few instances when kids can appropriately blame their parents.
Taking the Measure of Yourself and Your Kids
Think it's easy to spot a child who is overweight? With some of today's loose clothing styles and kids' constantly growing frames, it's not that simple.
The best method (for all ages) to determine an appropriate weight is the body mass index (BMI). It's the formula that assesses weight to height and is used by government and health professionals.
See if each family member is in shape, or overweight, by using this formula:
1. Multiply your weight (in pounds) by 705.
2. Divide by your height in inches.
3. Divide again by your height in inches.
BMI values for people of all ages:
Less than 18.5 is considered underweight.
18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy.
25.0 to 29.9 is considered overweight.
30.0 and over is considered obese.
Phil Lempert hosts a national syndicated radio show and is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show. He can be reached by e-mail at PLempert@aol.com. His column appears the first and third Mondays of the month.