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Dietitians Dish: Nutritious diet, regular physical activity are keys to curb childhood obesity

Jan. 10, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 9, 2012 at 7:10 p.m.

Elizabeth Sommerfeld

Since 1980, the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents has almost tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, approximately 17 percent, or 12.5 million, of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years old are obese - triple the rate from just one generation ago. "Overweight" is defined as having a body mass index at or above the 85th percentile through the 95th percentile, and "obese" is defined as having a BMI at or above the 95th percentile.

A nutritious diet and regular physical activity are keys to curbing childhood overweight and obesity. According to the USDA, less than 25 percent of adolescents eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. A new, easier-to-read USDA food pyramid - in the shape of a plate - was introduced this spring (choosemyplate.gov), to help adults and children make better dietary choices.

The CDC has identified five target areas to focus on for preventing and reducing obesity:

Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. To calculate the appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables to eat per day (for yourself or your child), visit www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov for an online calculator by age, gender and physical activity.

Increase physical activity. The CDC recommends at least one hour of physical activity per day for youth ages 6 to 17. Reduce screen time (television, computer and video games) to one to two hours per day, to curb snacking and encourage outdoor physical activity. Studies have shown that for each additional hour children spend watching TV a day, there is a two percent increase in the chance that they'll be overweight. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends removing television sets from children's bedrooms, as children who watch television in their rooms watch an average of 4.6 more hours a week and are more likely to be overweight.

Encourage breast-feeding of infants by new mothers, including the duration and exclusivity (i.e., using breast-feeding as the primary source of nutrition - rather than supplementing with formula or introducing solid food early, for infants). The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend breast-feeding exclusively for at least the first six months of a baby's life because of the health benefits for both the baby and mother.

Decrease consumption of sugar drinks. Instead, choose water, low- or no-calorie drinks, or low-fat/fat-free milk.

Decrease consumption of high-fat, high-calorie foods (sweets, pre-packaged snack or processed foods). Instead, choose water-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, reduced-fat dairy, nuts and whole-grain breads or pastas.

Get your child involved in some kind of exercise, be it dance, soccer, swimming, etc. There are several options available in the area such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club that have facilities where families can exercise and play together. Also, there's nothing wrong with just walking out your front door and down the street together as a family.

You might take the time to visit with your children about how their day went. Don't think of it as exercise time, consider it quality time with your children.

Elizabeth Sommerfeld is a registered and licensed dietitian and has a master of science degree. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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