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New study confirms parents must lead the way in kids' weight loss

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TORONTO -- When parents change how the whole family eats and offer children wholesome rewards for not being couch potatoes, obese children shed pounds quickly, researchers reported over the weekend.

The findings confirm a number of other studies that show that parental support is essential for heavy children to lose weight.

Twenty percent to 30% of American children are either obese or at risk of becoming so. Pediatricians are diagnosing more children with type 2 diabetes, a disease related to excess weight and rarely seen in children until the past several years.

''The first thing to do is to get control of the TV,'' says Leonard Epstein, a pediatrics professor at State University of New York at Buffalo. The more hours of television a child watches, the more likely he is to be obese, Epstein's studies show. He spoke on a panel at the American Psychological Association meeting here.

In his research with families of overweight children, Epstein has asked parents to provide rewards desired by a child (neither food nor money) in return for the child not being sedentary a certain number of hours a week. A child might want to go to the zoo or play ball with his dad, for example.

Children often become more physically active and lose weight even if exercise isn't emphasized, Epstein says.

Parents must ''buy in'' and shift the family toward low-fat eating, says psychologist Craig Johnston of the University of Kansas-Lawrence.

His 10-week weight-loss study with overweight youngsters and their parents included exercise, nutrition information and behavior-modification techniques that help reduce temptations. Children's percentage of being overweight fell by 8% -- if they were 50% over their ideal weight to start, they became 42% over after the brief program. It takes only a 10% loss to see differences in the risk for diabetes and other health problems, Johnston says.

School-based weight-loss programs for kids have for the most part failed, Epstein says. But making healthy foods cheaper than junk food in school vending machines prompts children to buy more healthy snacks, he says.

The rise in group day care for preschoolers might be encouraging sedentary habits even before youngsters start school, says psychologist W. Douglas Tynan of A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del. He says he's often asked to ''screen'' preschoolers from centers for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

''They rarely have it,'' Tynan says. ''But they're sitting kids in front of computers at age 2 and expecting them to sit still. Adult perceptions of what's an appropriate activity level for a 2- or 3-year-old are way off. There didn't used to be computers in preschools; they'd play outside more.''

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