Unhealthy Meals

As kids, we ran around the neighborhood from the minute we got home from school until our parents called us in for dinner. Warm summer days were spent biking to the park or playing ball with friends.

How times have changed. Technology has given children today more entertainment options - and fewer reasons to leave the living room. As parents, we also worry more about children playing outside unattended. Combined, these two issues are seriously limiting our children's activity levels and potentially leading to bigger problems, including larger waistlines at younger ages.

Fighting childhood obesity

Stefan Kramarczuk, MD, pediatrician, Park Nicollet Clinic-Bloomington, and father of two, says the health problems facing his children's generation are scary. That is why he is putting huge efforts into turning the tide on childhood obesity. "Although life expectancy has increased because of medical advancements, there is a good chance it will decline in the next generation due to obesity-related complications," he says. "It is up to us to change this through medical solutions, public policy and healthy habits."

Prevent obesity from day one

Dr. Kramarczuk monitors his patients' health and nutrition from birth. "What children do, even before age two, stays with them throughout their lives," he says. "Breastfeeding helps eliminate certain risk factors, reduces allergies and defends against illness. There also is some evidence that breast milk may minimize obesity later in life."

Children are introduced to table food around nine months of age and Dr. Kramarczuk emphasizes the importance of immediately introducing kids to the right foods. "As long as parents are eating healthy foods, I recommend children eat what the parents eat," he says. "The biggest challenge is changing the habits of the whole family to promote kids' health, nutrition and well-being."

Avoid unhealthy foods

When junk food, sweets and unhealthy meals are in the pantry and refrigerator, kids are going to choose them over healthier alternatives. "The best thing to do is eliminate those options by not even buying unhealthy foods," Dr. Kramarczuk says. He suggests buying lots of fruits and vegetables and putting them out for snacks.

"Although some children complain about the texture and flavor of fruits and vegetables, ways exist to make them tastier," he says. Adding toppings to a leafy green salad can make it more appealing. Carrots, celery or other vegetables dipped in light ranch dressing also may work. "If children refuse to eat enough vegetables, we may recommend vitamins or fortified cereals," Dr. Kramarczuk says.

Find hidden calories

Determining if children have healthy diets requires examining caloric intake. "Our first clue is height and weight," Dr. Kramarczuk says. "If we see weight increase without changes in height, it is time to intervene." He says the sooner unhealthy behavior is caught and reversed, the better. "If a child is on the high side of the weight curve at age three, we begin to take steps to move them toward a healthier lifestyle right away," he explains.

One common place for calories to hide is in children's sugary drinks. In fact, liquids can easily add 20 percent to a child's daily caloric intake. Although fruit juices and energy drinks are perceived as nutritious, Dr. Kramarczuk says these options are much like sugar water. "We want kids to drink milk and water," he says.

The exact amount of calories children should consume varies. Dr. Kramarczuk says a simple estimate is multiplying children's age by 100 and adding 1,000. So if a child is age 10, his or her caloric intake should be about 2,000 calories a day. Teenagers generally require more calories (about 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day), since they are growing rapidly.

Alternatives to TV and video games

Video games, televisions and computers have replaced a lot of the daily physical activity for children. "When I see time spent on video games, TV and computers exceeding the time spent playing sports or going outside and having fun, it is definitely a red flag," Dr. Kramarczuk says.

He doesn't suggest removing video games or televisions altogether. They should be balanced with children's lifestyles. "If they spend an hour inside watching TV, then they should be going outside for an hour to run around," he says. Exercise can be a great time for a family to bond, whether it is walking around the neighborhood, biking or going to the store.

Hard work pays off

When it comes to diet and exercise, there is no instant turnaround. "With months and years of diligence and effort, overall health and weight will definitely improve," Dr. Kramarczuk says. He recommends slow and steady steps to get started. Staying active and eating healthy sets a positive example for children, and improves the entire family's health.