Lately it seems that there is a never-ending stream of updates about Americans' weight problem. Turn on the TV, you will see a million commercials trying to help Americans become healthier, loss weight, and eat a more balanced diet. Look at a newspaper, magazine or online news source, there's some expert discussing the health problems that are caused by excess weight and an unhealthy lifestyle. But most of these stories talk about adults who have weight issues, not about children or families. Only recently has childhood obesity become a leading topic of discussion. This is spurred by First Lady Michelle Obama and her push to make children more aware of the importance of healthy eating, daily exercise, and choosing wholesome foods. But what does the First Lady talking about a healthier life or a TV show pushing people to lose weight have to do with you and your family's weight?
The answer is everything. Research has shown that if one parent is overweight there is a good chance that their children will be overweight. If both parents are overweight then the chances of their children being overweight increase significantly. Unfortunately, when a child is overweight, their weight problems usually continue into adulthood--it's not something they easily "grow out of." Due to this fact, many health care professionals believe this generation of children may be the first to not outlive their parents. But this trend does not have to continue. Parents have the ability to teach their children how to eat better, increase daily physical activity and live a healthier lifestyle. Up until adolescence, researchers have found that parents have a strong influence on their children's decisions. That means that healthy parents are more likely to raise healthy children. And if families change their lives together, they are more successful and build a strong foundation for life long health. The most important part of changing how families eat is to make small changes slowly.
Let's look at a typical American family we will call the Smiths and how they were able to take some small steps that resulted in major lifestyle changes. Mrs. Smith has been overweight since she was in college and Mr. Smith, once a high school athlete, started tipping the scales in his late 30's. They both have type II diabetes (adult-onset diabetes) and high blood pressure. They are a busy family and the parents feel too tired for exercise at the end of a hectic day. They have two kids, ages 7 and 10, who are both being told by their doctor that they are overweight for their age. When Mrs. Smith hears that her kids are on the same track to unhealthiness that she and her husband are on, she decides it is time for the family to make some changes. She gradually starts to change their evening meals to lower-fat proteins (like turkey and fish) and cooking more steamed vegetables, instead of fried ones, smothered in sauces. Instead of soda, they start drinking low-fat milk or water with meals. At first, everyone complains because they miss their sauce and soda but after about a week no one seems to remember the calorie-laden side dishes. Next, she decides that when she grocery shops, there will be no more buying the full-fat tortilla chips and changes to baked chips and adds other lower-fat options like whole wheat pretzels. There were no complaints with this change since no one even noticed. Mrs. Smith's next step was to make some changes to the sweet desserts her kids so loved. She got creative and found ways to make sweets treats from things like fresh fruit and fat-free frozen yogurt. The family's favorite new after dinner treat is apples, topped with cinnamon and raisins sprinkled with walnuts. Not only did the Smiths lose weight and feel better, they started exercising together as a family. They decided, as a family, to train for a 5K race and run together in the evenings to prepare.
For every family like the Smiths there are many others who continue on their path of unhealthiness. These families are teaching their children that it is not important to feel good and to live a healthy life. These families are setting their children up for health problems later on in life and aiding in their struggle with self-image. It will take a conscious effort to change your family's lives but it is worth the fight. Help your family become healthier just as the Smiths did and in the process you may even develop a stronger family bond.
Grete R. Hornstrom is a Clinical Dietitian who is currently specializing in pediatric care. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Physical Education with a concentration in Exercise Science from Kent State University, a Master of Arts in Wellness Management from Ball State University, and a Master of Science in Dietetics from Ball State University. She has worked with overweight children and adults, recreational and elite athletes, chronically ill children, and every day people on developing nutrition plans and healthy lifestyle changes. In addition she has worked with recreational teams, high school teams, and college teams educating them on the importance of nutrition and performance. She has completed one marathon and three half marathons in the last two years. Her newest sport of choice is cycling.