Generally, throughout U.S. and Canadian history, children lived longer than their parents, but today’s kids may be the first generation that does not.

“We are very concerned with the level of childhood obesity,” says U.S. Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Mike Johanns. “We don’t want this generation of young people to live fewer years than their parents.”

What Parents Can Do

“It is well-known that children most commonly follow the examples set by their parents,” says LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, who also is LIUNA’s General Secretary Treasurer and its New England Regional Manager. “We see this clearly with smoking and exercise. It is especially true with eating habits. Children get used to home cooking, and those tastes usually set the standard for their lifetime. As parents change their own eating habits, they’ll retrain their kids’ at the same time.”

Alternate description

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman
Armand E. Sabitoni

The Mayo Clinic offers this guidance for parents:

Don’t single out the overweight members of your family for lifestyle changes. Eating healthier foods and getting more exercise is good for everybody….Play basketball with the kids after dinner or take a family walk. Organize family outings that involve physical activity – such as bike riding, skating or hiking.

Parents are the ones who buy the food, cook the food and decide where food is eaten. Even small changes can make a big difference.

  • When buying groceries, choose fruits and vegetables over convenience foods high in sugar and fat. Always have healthy snacks available.
  • Limit sweetened beverages, including those containing fruit juice.
  • Select recipes and methods of cooking that are lower in fat. For example, bake chicken instead of frying it.
  • Put colorful food on the table: green and yellow vegetables, fruits and brown breads. Limit white carbohydrates (rice, pasta, bleached bread and sugar).
  • Sit down together for family meals – a time to share news and tell stories. Eating in front of TV fosters mindless munching.
  • Limit recreational screen time (TV, video games, computer) to fewer than two hours a day.
  • During your child’s physical exams, ask to see the growth curves for height, weight and body mass index.

To this end, the USDA opened a new food pyramid last month, aimed specifically at children age six to 11. The site underscores the same nutritional messages as the adult site which opened last April: eat better and exercise more.

Parents and others who are concerned about children’s weight can use the new site to gather information and develop diet and exercise programs that will help children get control over their weight. The site also includes a “Blast Off” game that asks kids to select food and an exercise plan for an imaginary flight through space. Based on their choices, the planned journey can be a success or a failure. With the direction and support of a parent or teacher, a computer-literate child might want to work at this project until he or she discovers a successful program.

Increasingly, excess weight and obesity are recognized as perhaps the most fundamental health problem in modern society. In 1998, 14.8 percent of Canadian adults were obese, as were 17.9 percent of American adults. Another 42.1 percent of adults in the U.S. were overweight. But even more alarming is the growing number of overweight adolescents. Among American children aged 12 to 19, about 14 percent are overweight, nearly triple the rate of just 20 years ago. Also, 13 percent of children aged six to 11 are overweight. Data from Canada show similar weight increases among Canadian children.

The large number and growing percentage of overweight youth indicates that the nations’ obesity problems are going to become even more serious. For instance, Type 2 diabetes, once seen almost exclusively in overweight adults, is now increasingly common in children. In addition, more children than ever before are diagnosed with high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, sleep problems and orthopedic concerns. Childhood obesity also causes low self-esteem, depression and negative body image.

To address these concerns, the USDA has earmarked $600,000 for education aimed at young people. Most of this is going into the new website, although a CD-ROM and printed educational materials have been prepared for use in schools as well.

The USDA believes the website will be an effective way to reach children, and a spokesperson cited data that show 888 million hits at the adult MyPyramid site since it opened in April. However, some critics scoffed at the USDA plan.

Calling the effort “pathetic,” Center for Science in the Public Interest Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said, “It’s the USDA doing nutrition education on the cheap….If the administration were serious about this, they would get junk food out of schools, junk food ads off children’s television shows and calories listed on fast-food menu boards.”

Jacobson has been a persistent critic of the Bush administration efforts. In contrast, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said, “It’s an important step forward, but we need to keep stepping.” He singled out the messages for teacher use in schools, “where children spend more than 1,000 hours each year,” as a useful contribution.

An independent survey of web usage confirmed a huge spike in MyPyramid hits in April, when the adult site was first announced. Since then, however, the number of hits has declined steadily and significantly. Thus, it remains uncertain how well the USDA’s educational program will work over time.

[Steve Clark]