Published on 09/09/10

Obese children need healthier options

By April Reese Sorrow

In the last three decades, the number of obese American adults has more than doubled. The number of children with the condition has more than tripled.

According to official federal numbers, two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese. One in every three children is.

More than 30 percent of Georgia’s children are overweight, making it the third worst state in the nation for childhood weight, according to a 2009 report by Trust for America’s Health.

A University of Georgia expert says children’s growth cycles are changing and are setting the stage for long-term obesity.

“Children are born with a fair amount of body fat, but as they become more active they slim down around age 2. It is normal for a child to regain some of that body fat again around age 6, but we are seeing it earlier now, around age 4, which increases risk for excessive weight gain as the child grows up,” said Connie Crawley, a nutrition specialist with UGA Cooperative Extension.

Increased food intake, a sedentary lifestyle and environmental conditions that encourage unhealthy choices contribute to the obesity epidemic. Cheap fast food, large portion sizes and access to salty and high-fat processed foods foster overeating or unhealthy eating, she said.

The best way to combat the epidemic is with changes to eating habits or lifestyle choices, which isn’t easy, she said. But it can be done with some slow but deliberate strategies.

“The original fast food is fruit,” Crawley said. “Apples, oranges and bananas are always a good buy all year round.”

Families can also save money, she said, by purchasing in-season fruits, like peaches in the summer or pears in the fall and winter.

Crawley says to avoid soft drinks and highly processed foods. These are mainly sources of sugar, fat and calories with few healthy nutrients when compared to unprocessed foods.

“If wheat flour or sugar is the first ingredient listed, find something else to eat,” she said. “Put it down if there are three or four different types of sugar on the label, some you can’t even pronounce.”

A complete overhaul of the pantry doesn’t have to happen overnight.

“Make an effort to change one product at a time,” she said. “Decide to look for one better alternative for your family every week. In just a short time, you will see a lot of positive change.”

Don’t announce the intent to change the family’s diet, she said. Simply introduce new foods as something fun to try. Family members can be slow to adapt to change. Often children need to be exposed to a new food 10 times before they will accept it.

“Usually a child will accept a new food better if it is served with familiar foods and if it is offered in small amounts and not forced,” she said. “Be patient, and keep offering.”

Kid-friendly power foods, she said, are those with low fat, a lot of color, good fiber and require little prep work. Good choices are blueberries, raw broccoli with low-fat dip, whole wheat bread with natural peanut butter, sliced oranges, salmon, tuna or steamed edamame (green soy beans).

Crawley recommends the following tips:

  • Offer old-fashion or quick-cook oatmeal without added salt. Avoid pre-packaged instant oatmeal. To sweeten, add honey or brown sugar and cinnamon. Another nice addition is chopped pecans or walnuts, diced raw banana or sliced apples cooked for a minute or two in the microwave.
  • Toss greens, like fresh or frozen kale or spinach, into an omelet, Or, sauté in oil for a few minutes.
  • Cut creamy salad dressings with plain, non-fat yogurt, which has less fat and more protein and calcium.
  • Offer avocado dip, hummus, salsa or low-sodium ketchup as dipping sauces for raw vegetables.

Weight control for children and teens depends on being physically active for at least an hour each day. Exercise as a family. Set aside time to be active together. Children enjoy taking walks or bike rides with their parents. They can improve their coordination with back-yard games of kick ball, soccer, hide-and-seek, volleyball, jump rope, or badminton.

“Everyone will be more fit and benefit from the stress reduction and relaxation daily exercise can provide,” Crawley said.

“When you eat better, you feel better and so do your children."

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.

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