Nurturing Your Child's Lifestyle: 6 Healthy Tips

Obesity is the most prevalent--and the most preventable--health affliction children face today. With one out of four young people already overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, there is clearly a need to develop both prevention and treatment strategies.Today, children are raised in an environment full of choices--a fully stocked refrigerator, a multichannel television set-- choices that multiply once kids reach school age, gain independence and venture out on their own. Choice is important, but how can we help our children learn to make smart choices about nutrition and engage in sufficient physical activity to maintain a healthy weight? In the book, Our Overweight Children: What Parents, Schools and Communities Can Do to Control the Fatness Epidemic (University of California Press, 2004), Sharron Dalton offers six recommendations to help parents educate their children and exercise an appropriate level of control over their eating habits.

1. Become an "authoritative" parent.
Authoritative parenting is the middle ground between permissive and authoritarian styles. Whereas permissive parents might have abundant high-calorie snacks always and easily available, and authoritarian parents might strictly forbid such snacks, authoritative parents have a firm but flexible structure for when and how to enjoy a variety of foods as snacks. Parents who set limits are doing the right thing because they are showing kids how to make decisions about eating and activities. Children need limits and guidance, but the evidence is quite strong that strictly prohibiting foods usually backfires later on when kids have more independence. Even so, being overly permissive and serving unlimited portions also leads to overeating. Young children generally stop eating when they feel full, while older children -- above age six or so -- will eat beyond fullness when consistently exposed to large portions. Overeating will expand children's bodies and their stomach capacity as they override their satiety signals until eating too much becomes habitual.

2. Eat moderately.
Children stand a greater chance of learning to eat in a healthy manner and to manage weight when using a family-based approach rather than going it on their own. Children are better copycats than listeners: They are more likely to do what their parents do, rather than what their parents say. Parents who themselves alternate between control (restrictive dieting) and loss of control (binge eating) are likely to pass on these eating habits to children. Children do not naturally restrict food and then overeat later--unless they learn this behavior from an adult. Parents themselves should seize the opportunity to become agents of change by eating moderately and aiming for a healthy weight themselves.
How to do it:
• Instead of serving overly large portions, try following suggested serving sizes and eating slowly so the body can recognize fullness. Serve second helpings only if family members are still hungry. Offer children small servings and allow them to ask for more if they finish and are still hungry.
• Instead of reaching for a high-calorie snack when bored or upset from stress, try a planned distraction. Have a list ready to go with doable suggestions: Take a five-minute walk around the block, make a phone call to a friend or do a few stretches to favorite music.

• Instead of drinking soda and juice several times a day, try quenching thirst with water. Parents should try to drink water or milk at mealtimes rather than soda. Let kids shop for a special water bottle; fill it with water and pack it for school in lieu of a can of soda or fruit punch.
• Instead of ordering a super-size value meal for each family member at restaurants, try ordering smaller portions or ordering one super-size meal for a parent and child to share.
• Instead of rewarding yourself or your child with an indulgent treat after accomplishing something challenging, try buying a non-edible special item, such as clothing, books or toys as a reward.

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