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Make healthy nutrition a family habit this summer

The end of the school year changes the daily routine for most families. For some children, that means more time spent playing outdoors, getting lots of exercise. For others, increased TV time and greater access to unhealthy snacks can allow obesity to sneak in over the summer. Families can take easy steps to prevent obesity this summer, and all year long.

A dangerous condition

Body mass index is a commonly used indicator for determining a healthy weight for a child’s height, age and sex. Children whose BMI is above the 85th percentile are commonly considered overweight; those at or above the 95th percentile are termed obese.

An obese child has an increased risk for medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, menstrual abnormalities, liver disease, back pain and more — both now and later in life. Childhood obesity also can lead to mental health issues, including low self-esteem and depression, and increase the likelihood that a child will be bullied by peers.

Medical professionals typically do not tell a growing child to lose weight, because a focus on weight could create other types of eating problems, such as anorexia or bulimia. Instead, a focus on a healthier lifestyle for the whole family allows the child’s weight to naturally become healthier as he or she grows taller.

A health care provider can help a family choose one or two habits to change, such as removing the TV from a bedroom, taking the dog for a daily walk or switching from 2 percent milk to skim. On a later visit, if those changes are going well, another healthy lifestyle switch may be added.

Healthy habits

Even if a child’s weight falls into the healthy range, he or she might benefit from a healthier lifestyle. Here are some nutrition goals for all children, regardless of their BMI:

▪ Follow the federal MyPlate recommendations of a balanced diet made-up of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Learn more at ChooseMyPlate.gov.

▪ Aim for at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. The more fruits and vegetables a child (or an adult) eats, the less room there is for unhealthy foods.

▪ Consume at least three servings a day of dairy products, such as milk and yogurt, both important for growing bones.

▪ Sit down to healthy dinners together as a family, with the TV turned off. Remember, if kids help cook, they’re more likely to eat what they helped create.

▪ Eat home-prepared meals — including simple no-cook salads — as much as possible to make it easier to follow a healthy diet.

▪ Drink water or milk, rather than sugary beverages. This includes fruit juice. A piece of fruit is a healthier choice than a glass of fruit juice.

As much as 42 percent of the average child’s daily calories come from snacks. Even if parents provide a balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner, snacks that are high in fat and sugar and low in nutrients can sabotage the entire effort. Parents should try to stock the refrigerator and pantry with healthy snack choices. Children old enough to read can benefit from a “Hungry? Try one of these” list of nutritious snacks posted in the kitchen.

The most effective anti-obesity measure parents can take is to model healthy behavior for their children. Instead of nagging children to go outside and play, parents can get up and take a walk or bike ride with them. Rather than chastising a child for grabbing a bag of chips, prepare a healthy snack of fruit slices for both of you to eat. The result will be a healthier child, and a healthier family.

Jennifer Seidenberg, MD, is a pediatrician with Penn State Medical Group, who specializes in adolescent eating disorders.

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