The volume of statistics about childhood obesity has exploded along with America’s waistlines. Around 20% of kids ages 6-11 are now obese, putting them at risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease and a host of other health problems. And the chorus of experts raising the alarm about this situation keeps coming back to the same root cause – our diets.
“The American eating style is basically upside down from what it should be,” says Jennifer Nelson, R.D., Associate Medical Editor of The Mayo Clinic Diabetes Diet (Good Books, November 2011). We eat too many fat-filled and cholesterol-laden animal products, and too little fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
Clearly, change is in order, and Nelson wants to start with our view of the word “diet.” “The origin of the word is much broader than the restriction of food,” she explains. The word comes to us from the Greek “diaita,” which means “lifestyle,” or, as Nelson puts it, “what gives you life, enjoyment, vitality.”
In their new book, she and other weight-loss experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest lifestyle changes that can help families do an about-face weight-wise, stave off diabetes and other health problems, and maybe pump up their “enjoyment and vitality” quotient.
The Most Important Meal
The book isn’t specifically targeted at children – especially the portion sizes and eating plan specifics – but Nelson says the habits suggested and types of foods recommended are all healthy and all appropriate for anyone, including kids.
Starting every day with a healthy breakfast is the first habit they suggest for all families. And every day the plan calls for four or more servings of vegetables, three or more servings of fruits, and whole grains whenever possible. Healthy fats like olive oil, vegetable oil and nuts are also encouraged.
Not encouraged are sugar (except what’s found naturally in fruit), outsize portions of meat (the size of a deck of playing cards or bar of soap is enough at mealtime), and full-fat dairy.
Moving toward a diet based on energy density – which means eating foods that are higher in nutrients, fiber and volume so that you have “the biggest bang for your bite,” will help everyone in the family maintain or achieve a healthy weight without feeling deprived.
Adults are advised to snack only on fruits and vegetables, but Nelson says kids shouldn’t adhere to this rule. “Their energy needs are different,” she explains, adding that children filling up on plant-based foods at mealtime will not get enough energy to sustain themselves without substantial snacks, so you can add whole grains and even some nonfat dairy to their between-meals fare.
The ideal is to eat as many natural, whole foods as possible, and stay away from heavily processed foods as much as you can. As a “bonus” habit, consider keeping a food diary.
Keep On Moving
Mayo Clinic experts advise that everyone in the family walk or exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, and that 60 minutes or more is a good goal to work toward. Eating in front of the TV is a definite no-no, and it’s best to balance “screen time” with equal amounts of physical activity.
This can be easier if you do it as a family. Consider heading out the door together to walk the dog or play a game, Nelson suggests. You’re setting an example that could lead to healthier lives for your children. “Mom and Dad are kind of the gatekeepers of a lot of practices, and over time, those practices do become habits,” Nelson says. Eventually those habits impact – for better or worse – children’s health. Turning your own health around is great. “If you pass those habits along to your children, that’s even better,” she says.
A Healthy Inheritance
And because genetic predisposition to diabetes (even type 2) tends to run in families, she Nelson it is essential to address these issues across generations. If a child has a weight problem, “chances are, Mom and Dad are struggling with some nutrition issues, too,” Nelson says.
Rather than being overwhelmed by trying to make a complete lifestyle turnaround at once, Nelson suggests making just one healthy change at a time. “Over time, the cumulative effect will make a big difference,” she explains. “Also, find a way to make these lifestyle changes enjoyable. If you and your family don’t enjoy the food you eat or the activities you do, you are less likely to stick with it. So find foods that your family will enjoy, and find activities that you’ll enjoy, too!”
Despite the dire statistics about the state of America’s weight, Nelson says she is hopeful because many important efforts, such as Michelle Obama’s Get Moving campaign, are beginning to align in an attempt to address the epidemic of childhood inactivity and obesity. “It’s a very tough problem that we’re facing,” she says, “but it takes just one person at a time making a choice to change, and sharing that with their family.”
And that change is about so much more than just putting down the cookies and chips. The idea is to change your family environment and lifestyle so that you can be the best you can be, and be in better balance. “The family unit is at many people’s core,” Nelson says. “What better way of recreating your lifestyle than doing this as a family unit?”