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Practical Suggestions for Families to Improve Nutrition and Activity Levels of Children

separator It doesn’t have to feel like punishment to make some healthy changes in your family. Sometimes it’s a matter of changing a few habits. Other times it might take more of an effort. But one thing’s for sure: parents who decide to create a healthier pattern for their children are likely to see benefits that last a lifetime.

What are some of the things families can do to make a difference?

Find ways to make exercise fun
Many adults like to use exercise tapes, so why not try it with the kids? Consider getting the “Movin’ and Groovin’: Fitness for Kids” videos. One is for kids ages 4 to 8. It’s a 30 minute video with 10 songs that provide messages about nutrition, respect and getting a good night’s sleep. Then there’s volume 2, which is for kids older than age 8. It’s 36 minutes long and features 12 songs for older kids. The video takes them through a routine that includes warm-up, stretching, cardiovascular training, strengthening and a cool-down.

These videos are part of an overall, nationwide effort called Action for Healthy Kids. You can go to the Web site and listen to a sample song from one of the videos.

Just one extra hour per week can help
A recent study showed that getting just one extra hour of exercise per week could reduce the rate of obesity among young girls. This was the first large-scale study to look at obesity in children. Boys were also in the study, but they didn’t see the dramatic results that girls did, possibly because boys tend to get more exercise than girls.

The study looked at 11,000 obese and overweight children in kindergarten and first grade. In the schools that gave first graders 1 hour more per week of physical education than it gave kindergartners, the first graders had a 10 percent decrease in obesity and overweight.

Too much time in front of the television and the computer are thought to be key reasons for the increase in obesity. One of the best things you can do for your children is to keep them moving.

Make exercise a family priority, even if the kids grumble about it. Schedule family activity regularly, so that the kids come to expect it.

  • Limit time in front of the television and computer.
  • Encourage them to play outside with friends (not with computer games!)
  • Get together and dance as a family. A lot of kids actually love this.

Practical Suggestions for Healthy Foods for Kids
Here are a few simple things you can do to make a big impact on the amount of fat and calories your child is getting:

Use 1% or skim milk
What’s one of the biggest sources of saturated fat in a typical child’s diet? Whole milk. That’s right, milk, the drink we think of as healthy, the drink that parents are encouraged to give their children in place of soft drinks. Consider this:

  • One cup of whole milk has as much saturated fat as 5 strips of bacon, or one Snickers bar or a fast-food hamburger.
  • 2% milk is not a low-fat drink. One cup has as much saturated fat as 3 strips of bacon.

Saturated fat is one of the fats that causes arteries to clog, leading to heart disease. The beginnings of clogged arteries are showing up in children as young as 10 years old.

If you switch over to skim or 1 percent milk, your kids might complain about it loudly at first. But most people get used to the low fat milk drinks pretty quickly, and many actually get to the point where they prefer the taste.

Other food facts about kids’ diets
It’s not just higher fat milk that’s the culprit, of course. Here are some other facts about kids’ diets:

  • Bologna and American cheese, two of the most common foods in kids’ lunches, are high sources of saturated fat.
  • Many children get 5 to 10 times more salt in their diet than they need, and studies show that 5 percent of American children already have high blood pressure, which is thought to be related to salt intake. (Be sure to read this month’s article in our Healthy Heart e-magazine about what to eat if you have high blood pressure.)
  • Studies have shown that 30 to 40 percent of our nations’ children have high blood cholesterol.

Taking action as a group can speed momentum
It may help to generate interest among the parents of your child’s school. It can be easier to work as a group to make changes. Some of the things you want to look at include:

Has your child’s school cut back on physical education? This can make a big difference in your child’s health, especially considering that even one hour of exercise per week can cut the rate of obesity.

Investigate what kinds of foods are offered in the school vending machines. Do they offer candy bars and bags of chips, or healthier foods such as raisins?

What kind of milk is served at lunch? Remember, whole milk and 2 percent milk are some of the most common sources of saturated fat in children’s diets. See whether your school offers skim or 1 percent milk, and encourage your child to choose that.

All of these relatively small things can add up to a big difference in your child’s overall health.

Action for Healthy Kids; Center for Science in the Public Interest; The National Cancer Institute; The National Institute for Healthcare Management Foundation.
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