Parents can protect the Sesame Street crowd
By Lisa Tartamella Kimmel ('92), M.S.., R.D.
Lisa Tartamella Kimmel ('92), author of Generation Extra Large, says childhood obesity has become the biggest threat to our children's health.
A new epidemic is gripping our nation and spreading worldwide. You can see it in classrooms, playgrounds and the food court at the local mall: Far too many kids are overweight. In just a few decades, childhood obesity has become the biggest threat to our children’s health. Approximately one in six children in the United States is significantly overweight, putting them on the fast track for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and many other ailments. Tens of thousands of our overweight kids already have developed type 2 diabetes, a disease that once was almost exclusively seen in middle-aged adults. Experts predict that many children already living with this debilitating disease will become blind or lose a limb by the time they reach their 20s or 30s.
As if it weren’t bad enough, obesity rates have tripled for elementary school children in the last 30 years, and today’s high school students are twice as likely to be overweight as they were in the ’70s. In the final days of 2004, we hit an all-time low when the American Heart Association announced that at least 10 percent of preschoolers are overweight. It was our wake-up call — our nation’s obesity epidemic had finally reached the Sesame Street crowd.
Because so many people view weight issues as personal responsibility, blame often falls on the victim or, in this case, on the parents. Whether they hear snide whispers at the grocery store or get disapproving looks from neighbors, they carry the bulk of the guilt. But mom and dad can’t take all of the blame for this epidemic. They aren’t the ones spending $3 billion a year on TV ads for fast food, and they aren’t the ones cutting physical education and recess from schools across the country. In short, parents aren’t the cause of this new epidemic. Far from it; they are the solution. Parents have the power to protect their kids from our fattening culture, and more and more of them are starting to take a stand.
As a working mom, I can relate to the balancing act that so many of us face. After a long day at the office, the thought of putting a home cooked dinner on the table or going for a walk easily falls to the bottom of the priority list. The whole idea of switching to a healthful lifestyle can seem overwhelming, but it’s easier than you might think. Kids want to be healthy and active. The challenge for parents is to create a home environment that helps them reach that goal.
Many parents respond to the onslaught of fast food restaurants and TV ads for sugarcoated cereals by launching an all-out counterattack against our fattening culture. They banish soda, cookies and chips from the pantry and try to assume total control over what and how much their children eat. But this type of micromanagement may actually do more harm than good. When inevitably confronted by “forbidden” foods outside the home, most kids overindulge to make up for lost time. What’s a parent to do? Teach your kids to become moderate eaters. Instead of keeping their favorite chocolate chip cookies under lock and key, make them available every once in a while.
Studied show that kids who watch five or more hours of television a day are four times more likely to be overweight.
Forty years ago, putting together a family meal was a two-hour project. Given the reality that families in which both parents work outnumber those with only one breadwinner, trying to find an extra 15 minutes seems like a burden. Lengthy commutes, long workdays and possibly juggling multi-ple jobs result in many of us being handed dinner from a drive-through window or calling for takeout. In the process, we hand over control to Ronald McDonald or Papa John. Research shows that bringing back the family meal is time well spent. Children who eat regular family meals consume more vegetables, drink less soda and eat fewer fried foods. Simply put, their diets are more healthful. Putting a well-balanced dinner on the table doesn’t require a degree in culinary arts either. Here are a few tips for those short on time:
Take a few minutes to plan your meals for the week. Before you head to the grocery store, make a shopping list and save it for future trips. Having the food on hand makes it much easier to whip together a meal.
Prepare meals in bulk. Many meals, like soups and casseroles, keep well in the freezer. Invest in a slow cooker that does most of the work while you’re at the office. Make the most of the microwave and the grill — both cut down on cooking time.
Serve easy-to-prepare breakfast foods at night. You can fit most of the food groups into an omelet. Even hot cereal topped with fruit and nuts is a nutritional powerhouse. Most grocery stores and food manufacturers have taken notice of our modern daytime crunch by providing timesaving meal staples. When preparing your weekly menu, use convenience items like rotisserie chicken, precooked skinless chicken strips, pre-cut or frozen vegetables and pre-washed bags of salad or spinach.
Shop smart. Turn your grocery store into a classroom by teaching your kids how to use the information provided on food labels. Take them on a tour of the produce aisle and have them choose a few items. You’ll have better success at getting them to eat it when it’s on the table.
Revoke your membership in the “clean plate club.” Children, especially very young ones, have a built-in sense of how many calories they need every day. These needs can change rapidly as they go through growth spurts and lags. Give them small portions; and let them decide when they’re full. They’ll ask for more if they’re still hungry.
Stick to a schedule. Just as kids need a bedtime routine, keeping to a mealtime schedule is equally important. It also helps them to maintain their normal hunger cues.
Begin with breakfast. It’s still the most important meal of the day. Not only does it jump-start the morning with energy, kids who head to school with breakfast under their belt have better concentration and do better on tests.
While most parents are rushing around, our kids are sitting still. At home, the average child watches three to four-and-one-half hours of television every day, giving advertisers a captive audience for the latest cola or cookie concoction. In fact, children who watch television are exposed to 40,000 advertisements for junk food a year. In the midst of this feeding frenzy, watching television takes the place of physical activity, the other piece to the puzzle. In addition to setting the table and restocking the cabinets, parents can compete with the remote control.
Do whatever you can to prevent your kids from permanently planting themselves in front of the tube. Studies show that kids who watch five or more hours of television a day are four times more likely to be overweight. Encourage creative play with toys or dance in the family room.
Get outside on the weekend. Don’t get bogged down with household chores. Go outside and play with your kids! Take a nature hike or throw around the football. The laundry can wait another hour.
Turn off the ignition. If feasible, walk your kids to school or at least to the bus stop. Whenever possible, run your errands on foot. Even a 15-minute walk can make a difference.
Stimulate skills. Enroll your kids in an activity that interests them such as martial arts, a team sport, swimming or ice skating.
Assign active chores. Vacuuming, washing the car and mowing the lawn all add to your daily exercise quota.
Most of all, be a positive role model. If your kids see you rushing out the door without breakfast or think that you’re getting your exercise by working the remote control, it’s unrealistic to expect them to value the importance of nutrition and exercise. By making a family commitment, you’re establishing a foundation for a lifetime of positive habits.
About the author
Lisa Tartamella Kimmel ('92) is a nutritionist at Yale-New Haven Hospital's Centers for Nutrition, where she provides nutrition and wellness counseling to both adult and pediatric patients. In 1997, she was named Young Dietitian of the Year. She lives in New Haven, Conn.
Generation Extra Large, by Lisa Tartamella Kimmel ('92), Elaine Herscher and Chris Woolston, published by 2004 Basic Books, IBSN 0-465-08390.