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How to Combat Childhood Obesity

Today's ultra-wired kids are more technologically advanced than we could have ever imagined. They enter virtual game worlds from a TV screen, they beam up any tidbit of information within seconds, and they have the ability to hear any song without lugging around those inconvenient CDs, cassettes, or—some of you may have to look this up—vinyl record albums.

That rise in personal technology, children playing outdoors less, plus busy parents who rely on restaurant food and takeout, have resulted in a tripling of obese children, says Dr. Garry Sigman, Adolescent Medicine and Medical Director at Loyola Pediatric Weight Management Clinic in Maywood, Ill. The percentage of obese children in the U.S. ages 6 to 11 increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008, Sigman adds. Similarly, the percentage of obese adolescents ages 12 to 19 increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.

Kids have to understand their role in a healthy lifestyle and that they matter enough to make smart choices. The younger they learn these habits, the more instinctual they become as they grow and mature.

"The epidemic of child obesity is not just a concern about our kids' appearance, but instead it has the makings of a grave public health problem. Never before have we pediatricians seen children that we are now caring for with 'adult-like' diseases of insulin resistance, type-2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia and hypertension," Sigman says. "Acquiring these diseases, as young as kids now do, will result in dramatically shorter life expectancies for their generation."

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According to Karen McNamara, who co-created characters called The OrganWise Guys to teach kids about health, says that in order to create real, long-term change, kids need to do the work. "Kids have to understand their role in a healthy lifestyle and that they matter enough to make smart choices. The younger they learn these habits, the more instinctual they become as they grow and mature."

Here are tips from Sigman and McNamara that can help keep the whole family in great shape:

Teach by example. Live your own life in a healthy way, and do not talk about your or your child's weight and body appearance, say both Sigman and McNamara. Your role modeling has the most influence on the kids, so when you eat right and exercise, chances are better that you'll make a meaningful, lasting impression on your children.

Create a routine. Make it a point to do something active every day as a family, and apply the same rules to kids and adults for food and exercise. One easy routine is to take a walk after dinner, which also encourages conversation, says McNamara, instead of plopping down in front of the TV.

Be mean with the screen. Limit screen time to reasonable amounts (for example: one hour on weekdays and two hours on weekends, with no TV, videos or video games during summer days). Instead, encourage activities that improve mind and body, Sigman says.

Keep cool rules. Have organized mealtimes and snacks: three meals (including breakfast) and two snacks (mid-afternoon and mid-evening). Meals should include as many family members as are home at the time. The TV stays off during meals, and the refrigerator and pantry take a break between meals and snacks, advises Sigman.

Liquids have calories, too. Discourage all sugary drinks, juices and sodas, except a small glass of fruit juice with breakfast. Encourage drinking water and nonfat milk (however, children under 2 should drink full-fat milk), Sigman says.

Shop for success. Stock up on healthy snacks and plan meals that incorporate plenty of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole-grain products and lean meats. This way you can allow second helpings of healthy foods, says McNamara.

Tame the hungry beasts. While you're preparing dinner with hungry kids waiting, set out fresh vegetables and low-fat dressing because kids are more apt to snack on what's in front of them, says McNamara.

Size up the situation. Sigman says to avoid family-style bowl servings; serve foods on individual plates to help kids learn portion sizes. All eating is from plates and while seated; there is no eating from bags or packages, or straight from refrigerator.

Accentuate the positive. Do not be punitive or berating, warns Sigman. Instead, he suggests being positive about health and your family's ability to live healthy, and avoid perfectionism. "A slight variation is not equal to misbehavior or sin," he says.

Indulge ... sometimes. Make treats actual treats! Hardly any food—including ice cream, soda and chips—should be off limits, but they don't need to be on the menu every day. "The less often we have these, the more we enjoy them," McNamara says.

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