Children are faced with many options and making the right nutritional and fitness choices are generally not a priority. But they should be.
Childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in America, according to Maria G. Boosalis, associate professor of clinical nutrition, University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences. Parents can play a vital role in helping children make healthy selections.
“As a parent, it’s important to model healthy eating behaviors,” says Boosalis. “For example, if a parent never eats fruits and vegetables, it will be very difficult to encourage and/or expect your child to do so.”
Experts suggest these simple guidelines for a family’s healthy eating habits:
•Plan family meals together.
•Use the Food Guide Pyramid as your guide to healthy eating behaviors.
•Educate children as to where foods fit into the Food Guide Pyramid, what constitutes a serving, and the appropriate number of servings they should eat from each food group.
•Incorporate children into meal preparation; make it fun for them.
•Sit down and eat together.
•Use 100% whole-wheat bread instead of white bread. Introduce whole-wheat pastas to replace enriched pasta.
•Choose lean protein sources, such as chicken, turkey, and fish.
•Select low-fat dairy products, including milk and yogurt.
“Encourage your kids to eat a ‘rainbow of different colors,’ especially fruits and vegetables,” says Boosalis. “Make foods into fun sizes and shapes and let kids help with simple preparation. Think of kids incorporating calcium into their diets as putting ‘money in the bank.’ They are putting calcium into their bone bank for future use as well as current bone health.”
Another key element in helping children make healthy decisions is exercise. Children should be physically active 20-30 minutes a day, five days a week.
“One of the best ways to get a child to make a healthy choice is by setting a good example,” confirms Joan Griffith, assistant professor of pediatrics, UK College of Medicine.
Experts suggest implementing an exercise program that will:
•Encourage social development and parent/child interaction by exercising with a family member or friend.
•Promote a sense of accomplishment and boost self-esteem.
•Decrease risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and sleep apnea.
•Reduce or maintain body weight.
•Help build healthy muscles, bones, and joints.
•Reduce depression and anxiety.
More fitness tips
If a child has not been active or exercised before, it is best to start out slowly. This will help in sticking with the routine so that the child is not exhausted after the first few weeks.
It is also important to pick something children like to do and incorporate that into the exercise. For instance, try raking leaves with the child. Then make a pile and jump into them.
Another consideration when starting an exercise program with children is to vary the process. One day it could be fun to go for a family walk, and the next day encourage riding a bike. This is also a good opportunity to enjoy new experiences together. Try taking children to a dance class or basketball game to see which activities interest them.
Griffith suggests instead of rewarding children with empty-calorie treats, provide them with healthy alternatives.
“Give the child an option like letting them choose what type of fun activity we will do today. This way, the child is still being rewarded, and it helps them to make healthy decisions,” she says.
Safety is also an important factor. Encourage your child to warm up and do some stretching exercises together. Also, pay attention to the child’s body movements. Take a time-out if your child looks nauseated, dizzy, faint, or short of breath.