Kids’ health conundrum
Local experts offer tips for raising fit, active children
It’s probably no surprise that the lifestyles of many California children are less than ideal. In general, they log a lot of “screen time” on computers, video-game consoles, smartphones and televisions, and tend to favor the kinds of food they see on commercials: fast, sugary and fatty.
Two recent reports support this observation. The California Department of Education determined that only about a third of all fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders passed all six parts of the state’s annual test of physical fitness last year. Meanwhile, UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research found that children ages 2 to 5 eat a lot of fast food—even as soda consumption trends downward—and youngsters’ diets have a marked lack of fruits and vegetables.
These pieces of research fit into a larger tapestry: Nationally, 35 percent of children are overweight and 15 percent are obese.
“Younger kids who aren’t exercising to prevent the bad cholesterol from getting deposited in their arteries, and are eating all that junk food and getting overweight, they’re just setting themselves up for high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes when they get older,” said Dr. Craig Corp, a pediatrician in Chico. “We have way more 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds than we did years ago coming in with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, because basically they’re 40-year-old couch potatoes at age 12.”
Our children’s health is a major concern for health professionals and society as a whole. As Corp explained, “health-care costs in our country will go through the roof when these kids get older.”
So, what can be done to get kids healthier? The CN&R posed the question to local experts in children’s health and development. Their recommendations ranged from small steps to broad policies.
“Practical ways to make kids healthy are not new [concepts],” said Dr. Maria Alice Alino, a pediatrician at Oroville Hospital who conducts a health-education program called Fitness for Teens. “We just need more awareness.”
Here are their suggestions:
• Make movement a family habit. Professor Cindy Wolff, program director of Chico State University’s Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion, says that “a lot of parents are really sedentary, yet they expect their kids to be active. We’re not role-modeling appropriate activities.”
Choose something physical for the whole family. Take bicycle rides together, or encourage children to bike alongside you as you jog or run. Even games like foosball and Wii Fit get everyone moving.
Do this regularly—perhaps each night after dinner, Wolff said, “because that’s when your blood glucose goes up, your blood lipids go up, and that’s the exact time that you don’t want to sit down and relax.”
• Limit screen time to an hour or two per day. Corp says parents can get technological help for enforcing these limits by searching “parental time-control software” on the Internet and downloading an app.
• Stand—don’t sit—when you’re talking on the phone. Even better, walk and talk.
• Get your child a pedometer. Alino recommends taking 12,000 steps a day. Kids may be surprised at the number of steps they’re already taking, then push themselves for more.
• Take the time to prepare meals using whole foods. “The reality is people are busy,” Corp conceded. “It’s a challenge, but … it’s definitely possible to do.”
• Consider a low-glycemic-index—or diabetic—diet. Corp says the average child consumes 35 teaspoons of sugar a day. Cutting refined sugars and flours can make a big impact on weight, cravings and hormones. Limit sweets to occasional treats.
• At the supermarket, read labels carefully. Processed foods, in particular, tend to have high levels of sweeteners and salt, but so can products you wouldn’t expect, such as canned vegetables and beans.
• Replace sugar-filled drinks with naturally flavored water. Ellen Michaels, a health educator with the Butte County Public Health Department, says that while soda consumption has decreased, the consumption of sports drinks has increased. “Sugary drinks are a big caloric contributor,” she said.
Unfortunately, Alino pointed out, many kids “don’t even know the concept” of water as a drink—“they think it’s for taking a shower and washing clothes.” So, try giving children chilled water with a natural flavor garnish: mint leaves, orange slices, lemon slices, strawberries, cucumbers, etc. “Kids taste it and like it,” Alino said.
• Get your child his/her own water container for hydration on the go.
• Bring healthy snacks in the car. When kids get hungry and see a fast-food sign, you can deflect their craving.
• Make sure the healthiest foods you buy are highly visible. Put them in the front of the refrigerator, cabinets and pantry shelves. “What’s visible is what’s usually taken,” Wolff said.
• Talk about nutrition at home to encourage your children to make better choices away from home. Wolff compares healthy eating to tooth-brushing—if parents start early enough, they’ll instill habits that last.
• Push Rep. Doug LaMalfa and Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to support a farm bill with incentives for farmers growing fruits and vegetables, not just corn and commodities.
• Encourage municipal leaders to follow the example of Shasta County by offering incentives to eateries that offer healthful kids’ meals.
• Support food tours and tastings that expose children to healthful, local food.
• Look into your school’s wellness policy, including what snacks administrators allow to be sold on campus.
• Ask legislators to expand preventative measures in Medi-Cal to include fitness and nutrition consultations for all children, not just those with a condition such as diabetes. (Then, perhaps, private insurers would follow suit.) “It certainly would be a big cost,” Corp said, “but prevention is a lot less expensive than treatment.”