No one has to tell you that the statistics are staggering, in fact so terrifying that even Stephen King could not come up with a worse scenario.
Obesity now ranks second only to smoking as a preventable cause of death in our population. Super-sized portions, snacks, soda, candy, unhealthy diets and a lack of exercise are major contributors to the obesity statistics that show that our nation's children are in crisis. If we don't take action now, the obesity problem of today will affect the many generations to come.
A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine contends that for the first time in two centuries, the current generation of American children can expect to live shorter and sicker lives than their parents. The report further states that the severity and prevalence of obesity is so great, especially among our children that heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and Type 2 diabetes will strike earlier and earlier in life.
It's one thing to be at risk of a heart attack when you're 50, and quite another to have the clock start ticking at age 10. With 1 in 3 kids overweight or obese, by mid-century we can expect that half of all deaths in this country will be caused, directly or indirectly, by obesity. It begins with habits formed in childhood. How do we expect to compete on any level in this world when we are fat and unhealthy, and our kids are in worse shape than we are?
Kids are marketed to with a virulent intensity, and as parents you are up against sparkling packages, dancing clowns and superheroes. In 2005 alone, more than $11 billion was spent on marketing candy, soda, fast food and restaurants, while less than $10 million was spent on marketing the 'Five a Day' program that promotes healthy eating. With more than 64% of Americans still unaware of the importance of eating five servings of veggies a day, it's no wonder our kids are in such rough shape.
As parents and communities, we need to take control of our children's health and future...or there will be nothing left to salvage. You face the constant challenge of making healthy food choices appealing to kids. It's a battle of tofu and broccoli versus the 'Happy Meal' with a toy from the current children's movie phenomenon.
But there is good news if you are ready to become pro-active and reclaim the vitality kids should enjoy. Getting them to change can be rife with challenges, but it can be done. To change the way your children view food and healthy eating, you must abandon the idea that you're depriving them of the foods they love. Your children are in your care. Your job is to help guide them to live happy, healthy lives. You can't create productive adults out of over-indulged, bloated children. However, this isn't boot camp; it's life, so take it easy. Change is tough even for adults, so imagine how your kids feel.
Now I know what you're thinking: 'I can't even get my kids to look at broccoli.' Take a deep breath, Grasshopper. The change may be slow and easy, but your goal is to create socially responsible, healthy, 'green,' slim human beings.
As kids grow, the most important thing to remember is that they get enough calories. You don't want them to get fat, so junk food, sugar and soda should have no place in your home. Kids' tummies are small; they will fill up quickly on small portions, so remember to keep healthy snacks on hand to keep them fueled for growth and activity. Moderate use of healthy fats like avocadoes, nut butters, nuts or seeds gives kids concentrated calories that they need in ways that they'll eat. Crackers, pasta, whole grain bread, and slightly refined grains, like oatmeal, work great for kids when they can't eat a lot of volume, but still need nutrients. In the end, just like adults, whole grains, fresh vegetables, fruit, healthy sources of protein will ensure a vital life for your child.
There are many ways to gently alter your family's eating habits. It is essential that your kids don't see you as a food 'Nazi.' A friend of mine with three kids had an idea. Saying nothing, she placed a platter of cut veggies with hummus, along with a bowl of fruit on the table while the kids played in the living room. An hour later, the food was gone. No discussions, no lectures, no drama, just action. Every family is different and your approach to change has to reflect the spirit of your family. But change we must.
Begin with foods that are familiar to your children. Trust me when I tell you it's a rare child that can differentiate between natural peanut butter and Skippy. If pasta is their thing, changing to an organic version of their favorite shape is a gentle step toward the whole grain version that serves their health best. Do they love pizza? Work with a whole wheat frozen crust and turn dinner into a pizza party. Look at any of the foods they like and you'll usually find healthier versions of them. Most supermarkets now have an extensive natural products section, so you'll be able to find what you need with little effort.
In time, you can begin to introduce new foods to the kids. It takes ten times for a child to see a new food before he or she will try it. That means a lot of patience on your part, but we are talking about your kids and the future they'll have.
Of course, there are times when your family eats out, but that should be a treat. And no dinner in a bucket, please! There's no question that eating in a restaurant serves up many more calories than you and your family need. But it's bigger than that. When you cook at home you impart a certain level of energy to what you're creating. (I know this might sound a little esoteric, but hear me out.) Not even the greatest restaurant chef can duplicate the energy of cooking and eating at home. It's hard to quantify: knowing what's in each dish, everyone pitching in to help, the dynamics of sitting around the family table...it all adds up to make an incredibly positive experience for everyone. We've all experienced that feeling, that contentment of the table. We're nostalgic for it. It's time to bring it back.
And as your eating at home becomes healthier, your children may find restaurant indulgences less appealing. As they eat healthier meals at home and see your example (gotcha!), they will become more conscious of what good health feels like. They will come to value it much more than the taste of soda or pizza. That's not to say they'll never indulge, but they won't be careening wildly out of control in rebellion against the food at home -- unless the food at home is terrible.
One of your toughest battles will be with schools and their food programs. While a growing number of school districts and some federal lawmakers toil to make changes to limit access to junk food in school, food corporation lobby groups work just as hard to maintain a stranglehold on the cafeteria kitchen and vending machines.
While everyone sees the toll poor quality processed foods are taking on our children's health, the political reality of large food companies' insistence that their food be available to kids all the time is the foundation of your battle for your child's health. So far, the toughest measures have asked that portions of sugary drinks be smaller, that sugar and sodium be reduced and that there be only limited access to soda. The problem lies in thinking we can fix our children's health simply by packaging the junk they eat in smaller packages with slight reformulations. It's true that some change is better than nothing, but our kids are out of time. We do not have the luxury of gradually, over years, changing their intake of processed foods. Our kids are fat and at risk of dying young now. We must change the way we think about nourishing our kids.
So what do we do? Well, the obvious answer is to pack a lunch for your kids...or with your kids, so they are getting what they want to eat. If pizza is what they love, make one with a whole wheat English muffin and their favorite toppings. If they like peanut butter and jelly, whole grain bread, natural peanut butter and pure fruit preserves fit the bill. You get the idea here. Instant ramen noodles, hummus, organic corn chips, fresh, organic fruit, natural sweets or a small baggie of nuts are all good components for creating a nourishing, balanced lunch for your kids in minutes.
Until we can change the lunch programs in schools, you have to take your children's health into your own hands. I work a lot in schools, creating programs that teach parents, kids and teachers about making better choices. http://www.christinapirello.orgBut it all comes back to parents. Until we demand better food for our children, their health will continue to be sold off to the highest bidder with no regard for their future.
As Pearl Buck said 'If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.'