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Once again, the ranks of overweight children are on the rise.
According to the latest report from the National Institutes of Health, although almost every indicator of adolescent health has improved over the last 10 years, America's youth continue to get heavier -- to the tune of an estimated 9 million overweight children.
What can you do about this junior obesity crisis?
Here's a countdown of the top 10 tips from experts on how to prevent your child from putting on too many pounds.
10. A Healthy Beginning
The key to getting through the day is to start off on the right foot. According to Tammy Baker, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, "[Breakfast] helps us spread our calories out throughout the day. In addition, if breakfast is skipped it is more likely that junk will be consumed mid-morning when hunger hits."
Studies have consistently found that kids who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight. But be sure to say no to sugary cereals and other unhealthy foods in the morning -- those will only pack on the pounds.
9. Breast Feed Your Baby
Studies have shown that breast-fed babies are significantly less likely to be obese by the time they become teenagers.
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven and author of several books on nutrition, advises mothers to "encourage breast feeding -- it appears to lend lasting protection against obesity."
Maternal milk is also believed to convey a host of other medical benefits and provides substantial savings on formula, opening the door for an initial investment in fitness equipment.
8. Encourage Healthy Habits at School
Schools may focus on history and science in the classroom, but they also teach children important lessons about diet and nutrition. Fried foods and vending machines full of soda and candy bars lead adolescents to worse overall dietary habits, while regular physical education classes keep students active.
Katz admonishes school boards for not doing more to promote healthy eating. "With bad eating habits hurting our children more than tobacco, it's time to draw a line that surrounds our schools, and defend it against junk food invasion."
7. Use Moderation in Meals
It may be unrealistic to expect your children to become health-food nuts -- instead, teach them to eat less healthy foods in moderation, and try to substitute snacks such as fruits and yogurt for cookies and chips. In particular, limit foods high in saturated fat such as fast food, donuts, and packaged snacks.
As Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, puts it, "Set some healthy limits and enforce them. It's not about good foods or bad foods, it's about how much and how often. The answer is usually less of it and less often."
6. Family Time = Healthier Time
Eating at home with your family often translates into a healthier diet. Home-cooked meals usually have less fat, sugar, and salt, and better-sized portions than restaurant food.
Studies have also shown that adolescent nutrition is significantly correlated with the frequency of family meals. Children are much more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and dairy products when dining regularly with their parents.
"Eating meals as a family models healthy family behavior and promotes healthier food choices than random food pick-ups from various fast-food and snack food choices," says Dr. James Anderson, director of the metabolic research group and professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
5. Count Your Liquid Calories
People tend to be less careful about monitoring the nutrition content of beverages, but the fact is most of our drinks are loaded with calories and sugar.
Dr. Terry Maratos-Flier, professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, cautions against the misconception that liquid calories are less meaningful: "[We need to] teach kids that drinks are calories, too. Orange juice and apple juice have the same number of calories as most sodas per ounce. Just because you drink the calories doesn't mean they don't count."
To control your liquid calorie intake, substitute low-calorie drinks such as water or low-fat milk for soda and punch. Eat actual fruits instead of drinking fruit juices, which tend to contain large amounts of sugar.
4. Exercise Prudence in Portions
Children are not simply smaller versions of adults -- they need kid-sized portions for meals. Children who overeat and are forced to clean their plates are doing their bodies a disservice.
Baker emphasizes regulating quantity is a must: "Give children choices but control portions and what comes in to the home. ... Bringing only healthy foods into the house and giving children appropriate portions helps them learn what is healthy but still allows choice."
3. Cut Screen Time
Katz characterizes sitting in front of the television as a "triple whammy." Not only does watching TV not burn calories, but it also reduces children's physical activity and exposes them to commercials for high-calorie junk foods.
Research has shown that watching more television is associated with a greater risk of obesity and diabetes. Cutting time from the TV and computer will encourage children to exercise more and lounge around less.
2. Get a Move On
This is a no-brainer -- physical activity is a must in any dietary program. Your child should have plenty of time for exercise after easing up on the video games, so try to plan family activities such as hiking and bike riding.
Baker advises parents, "Walk the walk. Activity is an important part of preventing obesity." Katz agrees: "Families should make shared activity a priority."
Swimming lessons, sports leagues, or even just walking instead of driving from place to place are all good ideas for staying in shape.
1. Nutrition Begins and Ends in the Home
Children pick up their habits from their parents and typically eat what is provided for them. Parents decide what types of foods are available in the household and act as role models for their children.
Anderson recommends parents pay attention to their food choices. "[Children] are likely to make healthy food choices if they see this modeled by their parents and are offered a wide variety of healthy choices and almost no unhealthy choices."
Katz concurs: "Children are very much influenced by the examples their parents set. ... We can and should do much better, making healthful eating a practice that families share every day."
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