Published on 05/29/03

Protect your kids from obesity this summer

By April Reese
University of Georgia

Experts predict that obesity will overtake smoking as the leading cause of death. And it's largely due to the way we feed ourselves and our children, said Connie Crawley.

"Elementary school-aged children can gain almost 20 pounds during the summer if they consume extra calories from just one 20-ounce soft drink every day," said Crawley, a nutrition and health specialist in the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Children can be taught what to like," she said. "If chips, sodas and ice cream are available, they'll eat them. But if only fruit or other healthy snacks are available, they'll choose those, too."

Killer diseases

Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer, Crawley said. And preventing it is much easier than getting rid of it.

"We train our children to expect a certain size portion, and their stomachs have been trained to accept that size portion," she said.

"Once a child gains weight and the fat cells are there, they'll always be there," she said. "Weight loss only makes fat cells shrink. These fat cells will remain hungry, waiting to get bigger again."

Fast-food restaurants can encourage overeating. But not all fast food is harmful.

Plan ahead

"Plan ahead what you'll order so you'll be less tempted by all those high-fat, high-calorie specials," she said. "Eliminate special sauces on sandwiches. Buy water instead of a soft drink. Limit the amount of dressing on salads. And choose a smaller hamburger."

Hungry humans tend to want foods high in fat and carbohydrates. "Our bodies are trying to replenish calories fast," she said.

At a restaurant specializing in chicken sandwiches, Crawley suggests a grilled chicken sandwich without butter, a small carrot salad, water or a diet lemonade and a small ice cream for dessert.

Poor snack choices

Poor snack choices can lead to weight problems, too. "Many kids are 'grazers.' They snack all day on food and beverages high in calories but low in nutrients," she said. "Children need snacks, but they should be at scheduled times so they're for nourishment instead of for boredom relief."

Some good snack choices are fruit, fat-free yogurt, sugar- free pudding, juice pops made with 100-percent juice, baked tortilla chips with salsa, cut-up vegetables with dip made from fat-free dressing, fudgesicles and whole-grain cereal with skim milk.

Crawley suggests working off extra calories through supervised after-school programs and recreational sports.

An hour of play

"Children need an hour of play a day," Crawley said. "This may mean delaying homework and going outside right after school. Children need to use up the built-up energy they acquired from sitting all day so they can focus better on homework later."

During the summer, swimming, bike-riding, hiking and camps can be good ways to get kids the exercise they need. Crawley also suggests programs at local gyms and fitness centers.

"The (YMCA) offers structured and nonstructured activity time for children. The days often include free time at the pool or time for noncompetitive play," she said.

"Overweight children ... may have had bad experiences in competitive sports," she said. "If we can find ways for these kids to be active in noncompetitive situations or situations where the competition isn't so cutthroat, we'll have more success."

Quality time

Parents can spend quality time with their kids while walking, riding bikes or playing ball, she said. Kids won't want to join in if the parents just exercise on a treadmill while watching the news.

"Parents can plan some of their physical activity outside or at a recreation facility so the kids will want to join in," Crawley said.

Commuting parents often arrive home tired and wanting to rest. But Crawley said they'll feel re-energized if they can be active with their kids for even a half-hour after they get home.

(April Reese is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)